Poetry and Prayer

Tony Equale

March 2017

3,000 words

 

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

   (W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben)

                                 

Poetry is transporting. It’s ethereal, magical; it’s almost other-worldly, but it is not prayer. Poetry produces its effect because it activates a special dimension in us — an intelligence that sits slightly above it all, like a horseman, with a perspective you don’t get when you’re on the ground and stuck in one place. This cognitive dimension goes beyond our usual work-a-day perception which we pursue for the purposes of survival. The horseman has other interests. This “other” dimension suffuses both the object of perception and the human perceiver. It is an essential bond between them that bypasses use and need. When that dimension is described accurately — it need not be in words — it produces its characteristic effect: enlightenment. It’s as if we are seeing those things for the first time … which is to say that we never really knew them before this moment. Poetry, then, is like science in that respect: it reveals what things are … what they really are, not what we thought they were.

Often the “new” perception requires going beyond conventional uses of language, art and music to find a substitute mode of expression, which may also include silence, or cacophony, to evoke what the poet sees, and simultaneously functions as a vehicle for eliciting that same reaction in the listener. In all cases, I want to emphasize, what poetry reveals is reality. Any suggestion that a poem is some kind of superimposition that coats things with a layer of emotion, or injects them with an outside energy they do not themselves possess, is false. The emotion that results from poetry emerges authentically from the reality as it echoes in the poet. The poetry reveals what binds the reality and the seer together. It reveals that, in fact, they are one.

Poetry allows things to shine with their own interior light. The poet says clearly what is clearly seen, … and what the seer sees is himself. Poetry is a self-recog­ni­­­tion mirrored in the object seen; for what is encountered, identified and communicated is what things have in common, and what they have in common is what I am.

science

All the various levels of human perception do exactly the same thing, but with different labels for the commonality. The scientific level appropriates reality as material energy and provides the mathematical descriptions of how it displays itself universally across all the various instances of its presence. Observer and observed, not entirely unlike the poet and his vision, share a common reality — their material existence — and the quantifiable tests and instruments of measurement used are equally conformed to the material components of the thing observed and the observing material organism. Science is possible because we are one and the same thing: material energy, quantifiably comparable to each other.

In the process of surviving, matter evolves. At a certain point the measurable quantities in the evolving sequence become so incomparable that we say some “other” thing has emerged that must be measured separately. Determining exactly when something stops being merely a modification and becomes a different thing is never without controversy. And the reason is that, underneath it all, despite appearances, nothing has changed. The underlying reality is always and only matter’s energy. And matter’s energy will always evolve if it is going to convert entropy into an existence that perdures, survives … .

The perceptions characteristic of everyday life are a subset of scientific observations, simply limited to more primitive measuring instruments and common quantities that focus on the practical applications for human survival. In both cases what the objective viewpoint sees, and measures, and expresses are the equations of matter’s needy behavior: Matter, including us as material organisms, must evolve, work and struggle in order to remain itself.

philosophy

At the philosophical level, with its own conceptual tools, we do the same. We appropriate the very same reality, but now in its quality as “being” or “existence.” What Philosophy is looking at, however, is not simply an “idea;” it is the same material energy that was examined by the scientist, but now under a different rubric: material energy as existential — material energy as constitutive of reality itself; material energy as “being.” They are one and the same thing, only Philosophy does not take existence for granted as Science does but queries it in its very quality as existence, asking what does it mean, this strange phenomenon: to be?

But what gauge does the philosopher use to determine that meaning? There are those that say the question cannot be answered because you immediately have to ask “compared to what”? Since being comprises everything, the only thing that being could be contrasted with is non-being. But non-being is nothing; it does not exist. No one knows what it means “not to exist” because the only thing we can experience and have ever experienced is what exists. There is no such thing as non-being. So to ask, “what does it mean to be”? … cannot be answered without begging the question. You either know what existence is, or you don’t. Existence cannot be defined in terms other than itself because there are no other terms. We cannot look at existence from outside because there is no outside. There is no philosophical horseman on a quest riding above the grubby business of living and dying. We are material organisms; living and dying is what we do … and our eyes are hot with the desire TO BE.

Our desire to be is the key. The meaning of being cannot be articulated apart from the existential need of the enquirer. The “cold eye” of the poet, in other words, if it is valid at all, must be grounded in some other aspect of universal reality not explained by science and philosophy.

Because it occupies the wider perspective, it is Philosophy not Science that recognizes and asserts that it is the same needy material energy that is the dynamism of existence. The philosopher does not manipulate “being” as if the concept were something in itself, as Plato thought, apart from the real world of matter — an “idea” whose logical features provided a map of reality. It’s the philosophers’ task to see clearly where existence resides. That place, alas, it turns out, is in his heart, that is to say, in his own material organism. The philosopher looks for an objective viewpoint, but there is none. Matter’s lust for LIFE gets in the way and cannot be suppressed. The examiner, the philosopher, is invested in being-here for he is nothing more nor less than material energy. Life and death cannot be bypassed. There’s no way to evaluate “being” except with the eyes of desire.

The philosopher, like the scientist, confirms the poet’s vision: that all things are one. But what he has learned from his honest inclusion of himself in science’s equations is that being-here-now is a scary, threatened, struggling thing … the object of everyone’s and everything’s uncontrollable desire, the source of great fear as well as joy.

the poet

So where does the poet get his “cold eye”?  How does he look on life and death, unlike the scientist and philosopher, and pass them by? It is my contention that the poet transcends cerebral rationality and using the eyes of his body, experiences in himself and in the “thing” his eye has alighted on, a common energy that gives him a different perspective on it all. He not only sees that all things are at root the “same thing” but he feels it. They have this universal oneness because they all share the same existential dynamism, LIFE, which the poet experiences first hand as his LIFE, himself.   He experiences somatically that his LIFE also exists beyond him, and that means his LIFE is part of something much bigger … something transcendent.

To the poet, things are not just there; he sees that they are doing something … and that they are all doing the same thing. He not only sees that they are alive, he experiences them liv-ing as he is. Drawing attention to the “-ing” in that word is a clumsy effort to emphasize the active and autonomous nature of the phenomenon. LIFE, which is another word for “being,” is not some “thing,” it is a pervasive energy, a force field, that all things activate as their very own, but, by the very fact that they all activate it, is clearly beyond them all. The poet is in direct touch in himself with the living force energizing all things in the present moment. It transports him to a realm beyond living and dying, to the energy of LIFE itself. He sees what the pray-er will try to embrace.

prayer

Prayer is not an entirely different phenomenon from poetry. It is not a seeing, however; it is rather an attempt at an embrace, a union. What prayer reaches out to embrace is LIFE itself precisely as the object of desire. Prayer may follow poetry’s vision, more so than any other universal mode of perception, like science and philosophy, for while they all deal with the bond that unites all things, the poet is in touch with it as the energy of his own LIFE. The poet knows he rides on eagle’s wings because of how far he suddenly can see. But he is not ready to step off a cliff because of it. The pray-er is.

Poetry is a deep-body seeing. But prayer goes beyond seeing. The poet recognizes the living dynamism that is operative in all things as his own. His reaction is a self-embrace that incorporates the “other” because they are both LIFE. The pray-er, on the other hand, seduced by what the poet’s cold eye has discerned, wagers all on LIFE as the subject and object of desire, and reaches out to embrace it, as if it were “someone” or “something.” What suppliants historically have felt perfectly comfortable calling a “person,” I identify as LIFE itself. In my own case, I use the word “someone” reluctantly and only because without it an essential feature of what justifies prayer’s transcendence over poetry will be omitted. But I insist, LIFE is absolutely NOT a person.

I say LIFE cannot be called a “person,” because it is not an individual entity and it does not have rational intelligence. If it did, it would respond to me in conversation; it would at least acknow­ledge my presence and identify itself. It’s what “persons” do. Moreover, if it were a person, sup­plication would make sense … and “God” would become responsible for all the evil in the world because one of the burdens of being a “person” is that you are held accountable for what you do or fail to do for others. We cannot deny LIFE’s complete indifference to human suffering. LIFE does none of the things expected of a person, therefore LIFE is not a person.

LIFE is the living energy of all entities; but it is not itself an entity. How can a “non-entity” be real? That’s not a rhetorical question. It can be real the same way any force-field or pervasive energy, whose presence is on display suffused in a myriad of entities, is real without being a “thing.” LIFE is a force-field, equally active in every entity that is alive, but not found any­­where alone and by itself. LIFE is not a “thing,” an entity or an individual.

And yet, squirm as we might, we cannot suppress the acknowledgement that LIFE is a benevolent force. The deck is stacked on this question because we humans are made of matter’s living energy and we are not able to view LIFE without desire, for we are LIFE. We also see its creative generosity on unmistakable display in its universal manifestations: the intense affect that accompanies every aspect of sexual reproduction of every organism from the most primitive to the most complex without exception. The living feelings that we experience within ourselves as we participate in these processes we can see mirrored in every living organism. Despite the varied forms it takes in different species, everywhere the LIFE-force is seen, it leans out in the same direction. It is what the philosopher discovered in querying being: if it is we who define existence, it can only be defined as the object of universal desire. To us it has no other meaning. Those who move from poetry to prayer have decided to trust it and plunge headlong into the abyss. Prayer is the attempt to be one with LIFE.

Everything made of matter, everything that exists speaks so repeatedly and unequivocally of desire for LIFE as to make it a cliché. We are made of desire … we are made for desire … and bite our tongues as we may, we can hardly keep from saying: we are made BY desire. LIFE appears to us as the desire to live … in us! After all, LIFE was not my idea. How did I come to own LIFE?

The object of prayer is to possess LIFE itself. It is a function of our need to be here. Our immediate temptation is to reason backwards to a singular source. Each thing alive received its life from its parents. No pool of chemicals and proteins has yet been able to generate LIFE out of its own resources, or to concoct it out of the surrounding environment. LIFE comes only passed on by living things that reproduce. Science, moreover, has determined that everything living on planet earth is made of cells that are the living inheritors of one original proto cell. It is natural, then, to assume that LIFE, the force-field, is itself a singular entity; but that’s not the way LIFE is found in nature. LIFE suffuses all things; it is owned and deployed with equal autonomy by each living thing, eradicating any possible individuality to the field itself. In my case I can say without equivocation, LIFE is my very own. That instantaneously makes it unavailable to its own individuality.

This is the beginning of prayer: the clear perception that our own being is enfolded in LIFE, not a vague unspecified LIFE, but a LIFE defined by desire not more or less present and active in us than in any other living thing. What poetry perceives as the threads and fibers of connection, prayer takes a step further and reaches out to as intended, generous. The reality of desire in us prods the pray-er to see desire as more than metaphor.  LIFE is not only my own; LIFE desires to be owned … LIFE wants to be alive in others. “I” am what LIFE has done. LIFE “chose” to live as me. I reach full maturity, physically, psychologically, when I can give LIFE to others.

Other?

In prayer I reach out to embrace LIFE as if it were something other than myself. Indeed, the poetic perception of the commonality of LIFE shared among all living things seems at first to encourage such an objectification; LIFE is clearly more than myself. That seems to imply “other.” Throughout our history prayer has been directed to LIFE as to an independent rational humanoid entity called “God,” — the totally “other” — whom we imagined as simply a much larger version of a human person. But reality interrupts our dream. LIFE is not an entity. LIFE belongs equally to myriads of living organisms; no organism is more alive than any other. The most privileged source of the perception of LIFE — where we know it most unmistakably — is ourselves. I am LIFE but I am not all of LIFE. I am forced to assume some kind of distinction, if not separation and distance, between my individual being and LIFE — this force-field — which preceded me in the procreative cells of my parents, and which my own reproductive cells pass on with or without my conscious intention. LIFE does the same for every living thing on planet earth and perhaps everywhere in the universe. LIFE may not be rational, but you cannot deny it is generous, abundant, magnanimous, profuse, munificent, sharing, openhanded, bighearted … and transcendent. Those who are seduced by this undeniable extravagance may be forgiven.

The subsequent struggle to survive can delude me into thinking that LIFE is an achievement of mine. But I cannot forget that my “self” — my body — came formed by the unconscious processes of LIFE, namely the reproductive action of my parents. This organismic “self” — me — is the original coherence of my body; it anteceded the accretions that I have attached to my organism by the way I have consciously lived my life. My body is the product of LIFE itself. It is an open potential always ready to be activated in ways that I choose. This is the power residing in my organism that “can do” anything; it is not fatally determined by any past choices and therefore it is the source of the radical freedom every human being enjoys. This is the self that LIFE made.

I reach out for LIFE but I am already in a state of indistinguishable unity with it. Rather than thinking I have earned and own LIFE, the determining factors coming from the other side of this relationship are so preponderant that I feel compelled to express it the other way around: LIFE reached out and took possession of me … gave me itself, made me part of itself. LIFE owns me.

Prayer, then, is the conscious acknowledgement of my receptor status with LIFE. I have been enveloped by LIFE which has embraced and infused me with itself, making me inescapably one with it. Nothing is more solid or more unarguable. The LIFE I have is not mine; it was not my choice. But that means that whatever union I hoped to gain by reaching out, was already given at birth. Prayer, in the first instance, therefore, is the conscious appropriation of my real identity, LIFE … and all that it entails.

 

THE HAIGHT-KNITTER DIALOGUE

January, 2017

3,140 words

I’ve just had what might be called a surreal experience: I’ve been reading an exchange between two Roman Catholic theologians, both 80 years old, imagining a “Religion of the Future” that will not be any recognizable version of Roman Catholicism.  Their dialog is recorded in a new book called Jesus and Buddha and is focused on the potential complementarity of Buddhism and a post-modern version of Christianity.  The friends are Roger Haight, SJ, well known author of the 2000 award winning book Jesus Symbol of God, and Paul Knitter, author of many books, most recently, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Orbis, 2013.

Surreal as it might be that married, ex-priest and retired Catholic theology professor Paul Knitter has committed himself to Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, it is well matched by his interlocutor: silenced theologian Roger Haight who, incredibly, is still a Jesuit priest in good standing.  Haight’s attempts in this dialog to restate traditional Catholic doctrine in a post modern idiom mirrors the surreality of his status.  He was silenced by the Vatican in 2004 because his book contained “statements contrary to Catholic doctrine.”  Given the Papal resistance to doctrinal reform since Vatican II, it was inevitable.  Both men, institutionally displaced in different ways by that resistance, are here  grappling with issues that, in my opinion, should have been resolved a long time ago.  This state of affairs is consistent with my belief that the Catholic Church will never change.  That’s a pity.  For in its current condition official Catholicism does not faithfully represent Jesus’ message, and I think that may explain why it is not capable of carrying on a coherent conversation with Buddhism.  The authors seem to agree, because this dialog from the Christian side conspicuously omits all traditional Catholic articulations.

The conceptual careening of these two Roman Catholic professionals who hold membership in an elite corps of systematic and disciplined thinkers, is an indicator of the utter disarray of Catholic theology after a half-century of officialist resistance to Vatican II.  The Council encouraged the Church to leave the 16th century and become a serious partner in interfaith dialog.  That required theological exploration and innovation that was never allowed to happen.  The result is, as I see it, that these two very old soldiers are just now entering doctrinal territory that should have been conquered and pacified two hundred and fifty years ago, when the American and French Revolutions broke the aristocratic rule of the ancien regime.

1. Theocracy

I believe that the Haight-Knitter dialog is being covertly diverted by a theocratic imperative embedded in Roman Catholic doctrine.  This theocratic imperative has historically exploited the Jesus movement for its crowd-control potential and prevented it from generating a human community of free men and women.  Catholic Christianity is not a faithful repository of Jesus’ vision.  The “Jesus” represented by Roger Haight in this book does not exist anywhere, and certainly not in the Catholic Church.  Moreover, I believe these two Catholic theologians are hampered by their institutional loyalty.

Institutional loyalty in the Roman Catholic Church has, since Trent, become more than a social virtue; obedience to the Church authorities is virtually a matter of latria — internal submission at a level that one would think belonged to “God” alone: worship.  Roman Catholics believe their Church is divine and what it teaches are “truths” revealed by “God” himself.  Both of these professional Roman Catholics, coming from their respective points of view, are in my opinion trying to find ways to outflank an obsolete Roman Catholic ideology without openly contradicting the magisterium.  Knitter, I believe, avoids direct confrontation by claiming that Buddhism is praxis not dogma.  Erstwhile “heresies,” disguised as prayerful exercises and mental training not statements about the nature of Sacred reality, should be of no interest to the inquisitors, while Haight I see as the consummate wordsmith, elegantly crafting new post-modern formulations of orthodox dogma fully confident that he has found a way to “save the words” of ancient formulae while becoming intelligible to the post-modern mind … or at least that it will fly below the radar of the thought police currently under new management.

The overblown role of the hierarchy in managing the belief structure of the Church is never itself the direct object of discussion, validating or invalidating the doctrinal complex of which it is an integral part.  The way authority is exercised can’t be separated from the doctrinal underpinning that justifies it.  Also, authority cannot be given absolute unquestioning obedience without conceding the doctrinal basis claimed for it, or at least allowing others assume it and thus appear to support a gross distortion of Jesus’ teaching .

No one considers stating the raw truth: that from the point of view of Jesus’ message the Roman Catholic doctrinal edifice and the authority structure it supports are disfigured beyond repair; they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.  These Catholics, I believe, are using a Buddhist-Christian dialog to disguise what they are really doing: trying to find a replacement for a Roman Catholicism that has lost its credibility.

I humbly and respectfully challenge both these men, clearly my superiors in virtually any category you select, to look squarely at the real issue in Roman Catholicism — the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about — the fatal historical distortion of the message and mission of Jesus stemming from the transmutation of the role of the Christian community from proclamation by example to social control by juridical coercion.  Over the course of two millennia the decision of Western authorities to use Christianity for political and social control has caused the erection of a doctrinal complex that both in terms of the alleged “facts” it adduces and the significance of those facts for people’s lives, stands in stark contrast to sacred reality as Jesus understood it and as he encouraged people to respond.  That it is also unintelligible to Buddhists and post-modern westerners reared in the perspectives of modern science is hardly a surprise.

Theocracy is the intent of Roman Catholic Doctrine and the source of its distortion.  Theocracy — “crowd-control” — has functioned from very early times to subvert the fundamentally liberationist dynamic of Jesus’ message.  The Roman authorities took a religious vision based on love and freedom and converted it into an ideology driven by law, and obedience … and fear: they forced Jesus through a metamorphosis that made him the divine Pantocrator, the all-ruling judge of the living and the dead.

The 18th century political upheavals that finally overthrew Roman theocratic governance in the West never penetrated its ideological foundations.  The Roman Catholic Church preserves those underpinnings in its doctrine, and its own authority structures are based on them: caste status as an ontological reality, political power as a “divine right” and obedience as a form of latria.  The Church is the last bastion of anti-demo­cratic aristocratic control welded in steel to “infallible” dogma, and the perennial vector from which its contagion — the divinization of fear, law and obedience, the living embodiment of the master-slave relationship — is always ready to spread.  Latin American liberation theology represented the direct antithesis of this aristocratic intent, and one can understand why, despite its orthodox credentials, it was the object of venomous attack by the counter-conciliar forces in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  They said it was attempting to use Catholic dogmas “contrary to their purpose.”

The implications of this thesis are wider than Christian doctrine.  Because of the iron link between doctrine and practice, authentic doctrinal reform will only occur if accompanied by social-moral-political reform.  Two hundred and fifty years of the rhetoric of “democracy” have yet to persuade the vast populations of the modern world that they no longer need the protection or guidance of a superior elite — an upper class — nor fear its wrath.  A “God” ordained Aristocracy is a myth that will not die.  Populist fascism, based on racist subordination, is a version of it with which we are becoming increasingly familiar in the USA even as we speak.

2. “God” transcendent or immanent

The foundational doctrine of theocracy is a punitive “God.”  Only a punitive “God” inspires fear.  In order for “God” to be punitive he has to be a “person” who “wants” certain things from people.  This personal “wanting” (despite contradicting the very definition of “God”) generates a corresponding obligation to obedience on the part of the individual human being who is terrified of the wrath that non-compliance may engender.

A punitive “God” also needs to be transcendent.  By that I mean very specifically that  “God” must transcend the natural order and not be identified with it.  He must stand over against the material universe and humankind as a separate entity, or he cannot interact with it, command it, punish or reward from outside.

The seminal event that established the transcendence of “God” is creation ex nihilo.  A personal “God,” without any pre-existing substance or force to determine the shape of creation except his choice and artistry, makes the world out of nothing and therefore stands above and apart from it and owns it lock, stock and barrel.  The world makes no contribution to creation and has nothing to say about its direction.   “God” controls and commands.  We obey.

The opposite of transcendent is immanent.  Immanence means that to one degree or another “God” is identified with the natural order and indistinguishable from it.  Modern science has discovered that the story of a separate personal entity/agent creating the world out of nothing has no evidence to support it.  In fact science has discovered that the cosmos and everything in it, from the smallest sub-atomic particles to macro-structures of immense size like galaxies, and complexity like human beings, has self-elaborated in a process called evolution over an unimaginably long period of time.  Far from making no contribution to creation it is now known that matter’s energy to secure continued existence for itself is the exclusive force that has shaped everything that exists in our universe, including the living things whose autonomous pursuit of existence is now an intrinsic part of the evolutionary process.

Insofar, then, that one continues to insist that it is still “God” who is the ultimate ground and dynamism behind this energy and its elaborations, it must be said that “God” is not perceivable as a singular entity or separate agent of evolution and must be understood as indistinguishably identified with the material energy that is actually observed doing the creating.  We are just now learning how profoundly immanent “God” is in the natural order; any creative energy he imparts to it is inseparable and indistinguishable from what it is observed doing.  We know abstractly that “God” is “cause.”  But how exactly “God” is distinct, if indeed his causation is distinct at all, is beyond our ken.  Thomas is clear: God is not an entity and his causation is totally commensurate with secondary causes.

But please notice, an immanent “God” is also indistinguishable from yourself.  The only commanding “God” could possibly do, if indeed “he” were ever to take the form of an entity/person who commands, would derive from primary causality providing the energy of esse (let’s call it LIFE) to your body.  To hear the “will” of such a “God” means to listen to your self in the deepest sense of that word.  That’s why John’s first letter suggests that those who are in touch with LIFE immediately recognize Jesus’ “divineness.”  Similarly, once LIFE is embraced, it has a profound effect on one’s bodily behavior.  The two, God and the conscious human organism, primary and secondary causes, become one again.

The depth of this immanence — this metaphysical and etiological identity — is not sufficiently described by calling it the “within” of things, as Teilhard does, because it evokes the image of a tenant in a garret room, active perhaps but necessarily separate and distinct in a way that is not faithful to the reality.  Ramon Panikkar calls this imagery a pseudo-immanence that is really a disguised transcendence and he excoriates it mercilessly in his little book The Trinity in the Religious Experience of Man.  Actually, Aquinas’ Aristotelian imagery in the SCG of “secondary causes” that are the sufficient and necessary cause of all things in a hierarchical relationship with “God” who is the invisible primary cause, the “Pure Act” that activates everything with “his” own esse, is my opinion, remarkably faithful to observed reality.

3. Science, evolution, person

I object to the way evolution is mentioned always ancillary to some other philosophical or theological guiding notions relating to creation; the evolution of material forms is not acknowledged as the sole, exclusive, sufficient and necessary etiology at play in creation.  The lack of focus on matter’s self-elaboration is responsible for the failure to recognize the deep, intimate and pervasive nature of the immanence of “God” in the material universe.  There is an identity here that the West has avoided like the plague.  The esse we deploy by existing is not only “God’s” it is “God.” 

The observable data about “God’s” way of creating do not come from scripture, they come from science.  “God,” if we must insist on saying that it is “God” who creates (constantly confusing ourselves by evoking the anthropomorphic entity/agent imagery associated with the word), does so at the pace and with the exclusive agency of matter at whatever point of development it has reached on its own.  “God’s” presence and action precisely as Creator is not distinguishable from the 13.7 billion year old material evolutionary process, and that includes the extinction of 99.9% of species that failed to adapt.  Humanity and perhaps even all life on our fragile planet are similarly susceptible to that eventuality.  Our traditional assess­ment of the central role of humankind in “God’s” relationship to creation, and therefore a putative guarantee of permanence for our species, is cast into grave doubt once we accept the determinative role of evolution in the creation process.

In this same regard, to say “God is personal but not a person,” as they propose, is unintelligible.  There is no theodicy that justifies traditional micro-manag­ing providence.  Traditional providence implies a rational, interactively relating, living entity who communicates with, hears and responds to other persons.  That’s what “person” means to human beings.  I think it is incontestable that Haight means “personal” in exactly that sense:

In this framework Jesus reveals God to be personal, not a big human person in the sky, but in such a way that the absolute divine power that creates and grounds all being is personal, intelligent, knowing, understanding, willing, and desiring what is good for God’s creatures. This means that all beings, in themselves and in their specific relationships and actions, stand in relation to a ground of being that is personal. The universe is suffused with intelligence and affective attention. Individual beings have a value that is guaranteed by a creating power that personally cares about them. Persons are more than individuals; they are subjects called to respond to an all-encompassing personal attentiveness.  (Chapter 4, Kindle 1250)

If “God” is a person in the sense described above, then he falls onto the horns of MacLeish’s dilemma: “If God is good he is not God, if God is God he is not good.”  If “God” is personal, the Haitian earthquake and subsequent cholera epidemic were a disgrace.  ¾ of the 200,000 people who died were children.

Micro-managing providence is a joke.  There is no such providence.  What “God” provides is the natural order.  The psalms themselves are full of MacLeish’s lament.  The only way out, it seems to me, is the identification of the primal “act” in the universe as a changeless will-to-esse where even “love” as we humans understand it is not yet operational: love is implicit in the will TO BE but must wait for its full explicitation on the secondary causes (conscious organisms) that will elaborate it as a derivative of their own pursuit of survival … the primal “act” (esse) is a living dynamism coming from a suffusive life-source which is not an entity and which does not distinguish among its truly universal effects to favor sentient and intelligent victims.

It is we, human beings, limited material organisms, who awaken in a world of such universal disinterested donation that even the microbes that kill us are sustained by “God” in the form of being that they have been able to achieve on their own.  It is we, then, that interpret LIFE in our case to mean compassion and protection and relief of suffering.  It is we who have invented “love” as part of our evolutionary process.  And as we evolve we are learning that if we are to survive we have to love species other than ourselves.  “Love” is our thing.  “God” is love only because he sustains us too.

Forgiveness

“God” is fundamentally immanent.  It is as immanent that “God” is transcendent, i.e., he cannot be identified with any particular entity, because “he” is the living energy that transcends them all.  “God” is also transcendent because the spectacular elaborations achieved by evolution have, each and every one of them, transcended exponentially the base from which they emerged, belying the age old dictum; ex nihilo nihil fit.  ESSE supports secondary causes that draw from an unfathomable well of creativity what is absolutely new, ex nihilo:  life from non-life, human intelligence from animal consciousness, and sustains all this newness with esse — “him”self. 

An immanent “God” is our very own LIFE.  This kind of “God” cannot punish because he has no “will” that is different from what we are and most deeply want for ourselves.  If he cannot punish, he cannot be harnessed to social control no matter how benevolently it is conceived.  Thugs have known that forever.  The only “God” they ever feared was the autonomy of men.  “God” impacts human politics only through secondary causes, just as he has nothing to say about when and where the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust are going to move in response to pressures from the circulating magma.  Theocracy and the “facts” adduced to justify It — like reward and punishment — are a fraud, a lie, preying on our fears to trick us into surrendering our autonomy to those who claim to rule in “God’s” name.   There is no one to punish us … and we have already received the greatest reward possible: the privilege to be made of living matter and eternally part of this LIFE-driven evolving cosmos.

Can we ever forgive such a “God” for not being the protective parent we think we need and want “him” to be?  Can we love “him” for the anguished autonomy he sustains in us and this fragile material organism that we have evolved?  Indeed, to my mind, that is the only authentic “religious” question … and the final answer to the Grand Inquisitor.

 

The Big Picture (6)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

6

In the real world death is subordinate to LIFE. It’s only in our heads that death dominates; religion helps us adjust to reality. LIFE exploits the energy of entropy, the descent to equilibrium, to launch its enterprises. LIFE has devised an effective ongoing strategy to transcend death, but it doesn’t live on in the individual; it lives on in the totality. Sexual reproduction not only insures that the living cells of the reproducing organisms pass unscathed under the wire to become new individuals built from the actual cells of their parents, but the natural genetic drift occurring at the time of reproduction provides the mutations which evolution uses to create new and unimagined organisms.

Evolution is a corollary to sexual reproduction and by means of evolution LIFE has produced this universe of living things creating a vast totality that is genetically interrelated. The family of living species is like an immense cosmic tree, every part connected to every other part by reason of a sharing that proceeds on two levels at once.

The first level is biological structure. Because of the homogeneity of the 27 principal proteins used by the three domains of living organisms, scientists believe that all living things are traceable to one original ancestor cell:

All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm. The study supports the widely held “universal common ancestor” theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.[1]

The second is the energy of LIFE. LIFE, it seems, does not arise spontaneously. Traditional beliefs in “spontaneous generation” have all been disproven, and modern reductionist attempts to find some “mechanism” that will turn LIFE on have failed. Where there is LIFE it has only been passed on from a living organism. This seems to confirm the single-cell origin of all living things on earth. That means, if we were to think of LIFE as a flame, all currently living things are alive with the same LIFE: they are the continued manifestations of the same fire that has been passed on from the first originating ancestor.

This image — of LIFE as fire — is helpful in another way. If we think of various materials, like paper, cardboard, wood, coal, we know that they all are combustible, i.e., they can all burn. Their “ability to burn” is an intrinsic property that lies dormant until a flame is brought near and for a long enough time that it causes the material to “catch” fire making “combustibility” visible. The property was there all along, but it needed to be activated by fire itself to become manifest.   We can think of LIFE similarly.   All matter has the potential for being part of living organisms. But it is only when LIFE transmits itself genetically that a new living thing is born and “matter” displays its viability. Once that happens, the “fire” widens and intensifies. It is still the very same fire, now shared among many without in any way being diminished. The fire burns until it exhausts fuel or oxygen or both.

The point of this imagery is that reality is a living totality. We are part and parcel of an ongoing organic process whereby LIFE’s power to exploit the energies of entropy expands continually. LIFE’s parasitism of death results in the continuous production of ever new living composites that transcend themselves creatively in unexpected directions by evolving. These new organisms enter into the ever larger totality of genetically related living things with which they themselves then interact anti-entropi­cally. The infinitely variegated universe of matter is one “thing” with one dynamism by reason of a LIFE-that-plunders-death.

To be part of this universe, therefore, is to be part of a cosmic project of boundless proportions whose inherent dynamism exhibits no discernible reason why it should ever end. If entropy is the ultimate source of the energy that LIFE uses for its undertakings, and if the “dark energy” thought to be responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe is actually new material (in disequilibrium) continually entering the system, the system is not closed; the process is open and potentially endless, and the capacities of the composites evolved by LIFE’s continued exploitation of the tension-toward-entropy, potentially infinite.

*

Here is where the “meaning” for humankind emerges from our analysis, and provides the substance — the raw material — for the poetry that naturalism by itself lacks. Death, the very source of our anguish, is simultaneously the wellspring of our participation in LIFE and the source of LIFE’s endless transcendent creativity. But please note well, there is a condition: living matter’s reproductive strategy is the only immortality there is. We must understand and be willing to embrace LIFE’s way of living endlessly. We have to let go of our way — fantasy projections like the Platonic paradigm whose historical time and place of birth are well known. We have to embrace the material conditions of our existence. How do we do that after millennia of conditioning?

The question comes down to this: which “self” do I identify with? An individual “self” struggling to live forever in another world as a “spiritual” entity after a lifetime of competition for material survival in this world? … or a “Self” that embraces its role in the Cosmic Project of matter-in-process for whose communitarian service it has been prepared?

We all spend our early years as helpless children experiencing firsthand the selfless service of others, parents, siblings, kindred, friends, on our behalf. When we mature we reproduce ourselves by joining in a partnership of selfless love with another, each partner prepared to provide years of selfless love to offspring. After a lifetime wherein such selflessness, experienced both coming and going, clearly constitutes the chief activity of our time on earth, it seems more than obvious that we, of all LIFE’s projects, are the most prepared for identifying ourselves with the LIFE-widening goals of the totality. We are communitarian in nature; we are the products of and active participants in a collective project that has preceded us by billions of years to which we now contribute and which will continue on for billions of years into the future evolving versions of LIFE as yet wholly unimaginable. For all our transience as individuals, we are fully reproductive members of this totality and so we participate in its work of self-perpetu­a­tion. The ontogenesis that infallibly guides individual development from infancy to maturity terminates when our organism is capable of reproducing itself by mating with another. Sex, and therefore gendered life, male and female, across the phyla in plants and insects as well as animals, are the totality’s tools for endless LIFE. Our gendered bodies are the agents of living matter’s immortality.

Each organism embodies the totality. Every part and parcel of us is constructed of the same material energy that constitutes everything else in the universe. The cells of our bodies are built from the materials gathered from the organisms — plants, animals, fish, fungus — we consume every day. Humans burn up 60 tons of food and two and a half tons of oxygen over the course of a lifetime in the combustion process of living metabolism. Our bodies are 60% water. The exchange of matter between us and the material environment is so great that, physically speaking, we are one and the same thing. The only thing that seems to be exclusively ours is the “self” — the individual “self” that the great mystics of all traditions counsel us to discount and discard — the “self” that dies.

It is the individual “self,” conjured by the impulses of the conatus, that seems to be the only thing that dies at death. The rest — all the matter of which we were constructed along with the contributions, virtual and reproductive that we have made to the totality — live on after us with the same capacity to catapult the collective project beyond our death into the future. So if detachment from the individual “self” is the crowning goal of LIFE, as the great mystics have said, that detachment seems an inevitable achievement. For the human life-cycle seems ordered to the eventual disintegration of the “self,” and the return of the substance of every individual to the living pool of matter’s energy from which we came. We are part of the Cosmic Project whether we like it or not.

Thus the meaning of LIFE reveals itself, not as some dramatic reversal of the material processes of organic life throughout the planet — an imaginary “spiritual” escape into another world not made of matter — but rather the convergence of the destinies of all living things spawned by living matter in a great Project into the future. That Project can be summed up simply as the exploitation of the energy of entropy to achieve the triumph of LIFE over death. Theoretically speaking, in principle there is nothing to prevent all matter, everywhere, from being incorporated into living organisms. The only condition is that it be matter.

Religion, especially in its efforts to help us cope with the human condition, need no longer create fairy tales of other “spiritual” worlds where we will live forever, and conjure up fictional conditions for entry. Religion can counsel our acceptance of death as inherent to life, the wellspring of our living energies, and it can hold up as great models for us those who embraced death fearlessly and even with joy. The central role of the cross in the Christian tradition is validated, not as disdain for this world and flight to another, or as punishment for being born human, but as the poetic symbol of the transformation of our “selves” from individual isolated selfishness to a selfless participation in LIFE’s Project.

 

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100513-science-evolution-darwin-single-ancestor/

 

The Big Picture (4)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

4

Religion in the West, admittedly, has become a problem for modern man. It is so dominated by a false literalist narrative inherited from antiquity that it explains if not excuses Carroll’s antipathy. Carroll is right. Religion’s antiquated narrative is incompatible with science. If that was his concern, he should be reassured that there are many “religionists” who acknow­ledge science’s authority in matters of cosmological importance and are com­mit­ted to developing a new narrative that is compatible with science. Out of commitment to the poetic side of his “poetic naturalism” he might consider joining us in our efforts.

Granted that traditional religion is obsolete, we also recognize that religion has helped people cope with decline and death. Whatever other shortcomings Religion may have, it has provided “meaning” in the form of explanation and poetry. Carroll recognizes we have a right to both.   But he will not entertain the possibility that religion, purged of its defects, might be the poetry his explanations are lacking.

Western Religion’s traditional “solution” of the human problem was not factual. The narrative that there is another world of “spirits” from which we came and to which our disembodied “souls” will return after death is pure fiction. I agree. There is no other world. There are no bodiless souls; our personalities, which are the neural reflections of the coherence and temporal identity of our material organisms, disappear when our bodies disintegrate.

We are entropic beings. We participate fully in the limitations endemic to LIFE in this exclusively material universe. The “poetic” dimension should acknowledge and addres­s the apparent contradiction between a material energy that is instinctively programmed to live forever (and spontaneously cultivates relationships in view of that expectation) and is simultaneously destined to succumb to an organismic entropy that terminates all the relationships created during the lifespan of the organism. I may not care if I live or die, but I am not resigned to the loss of the people I love.

How does religion address this? How does it both acknowledge and confront the inherent contradiction in the human condition?

The first step is to distinguish religion’s intent from the traditional means chosen to achieve it. The means chosen, the narratives all preceded the era of modern science and therefore were inevitably imaginative in character. So, Yes! The religious narrative must be adjusted to accommodate the new knowledge. This adjustment is not complicated: pre-scientific “facts” are taken as mythic, i.e., metaphorical not literal. But myth has another dimension. The traditional myth also embodies the religious intent of the narrative; and the religious intent, I contend, may remain true even after the discreditation of the literal story.

Let’s make this concrete: The biblical book of Genesis contains the Judaic myth of creation. Until the modern era people believed that this was a literal account. We now know, however, that the earth and life on it was not the intentional, purposeful work of an omnipotent humanoid Craftsman; it was the self-elaboration of matter occurring over fourteen billion years. The ancient authors were probably well aware that they were making up a story. But it was a story that made sense according to their lights and it projected their religious intent: Creation implied “Will.” Humankind and the world in which it found itself was the product of intention, choice, love.

*

The intent of the biblical authors was to ground religion in relationship. Effectively what that meant was that the quest for secure existence, which is the objective of the conatus, found its ultimate answer in the benevolence of the source of existence. Were they right? Obviously they were wrong about the cosmological facts; but were they also wrong about the intent: the claim that Creation was a product of “Will,” a project of love, and that just being alive meant you were already in a reciprocal relationship with your existential source? Does the familiar, the relational, the human, the interpersonal, truly characterize existence, or is “being human” with its focus on relationship an anomaly, a freak of nature, an idiosyncrasy that needs to be sheltered under blankets of denial from a harsh mechanical universe that has no idea what we are talking about?

Consider: from our analysis in section 2 of this essay, we know that matter is alive and appetitive. Unless you are prepared to insist that something entirely new … something entirely other than the matter present, entered the scene and ruptured the linear continuity of what had been steadily evolving since the initial expansion, the appearance of LIFE has to be understood as the emergence of what was there all along, a step in a process that was already underway. There is enough evidence to make it reasonable if not compelling that the fundamental indicator of life — the instinct for self-preservation — had been operative analogously at all phases of matter’s appearance, even at the sub-atomic, atomic and molecular levels.  Conatus is the desire to live, to survive. No matter how primitive the level in which it is found, LIFE is the desire to continue living, being-here: LIFE is intrinsically, inherently, “Will” in the sense that Arthur Schopenhauer used the word:

For Schopenhauer, this is not the principle of self-consciousness and rationally-infused will, but is rather what he simply calls “Will” — a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge at the foundation of our instinctual drives, and at the foundational being of everything. Schopenhauer’s originality does not reside in his characterization of the world as Will, or as act — for we encounter this position in Fichte’s philosophy — but in the conception of Will as being devoid of rationality or intellect.[1]

As living forms evolved, the way they manifested their conatus evolved along with them. Primitive cellular behavior developed new strategies of survival that included multicellularity with its necessary internal lockstep collaboration among individual cells along with an external communitarianism connecting members of the same species to one another for securing food, defending against predators and having partners for reproduction. Eventually consciousness evolved into intelligence and “Will” came to include purpose and intentionality as we humans understand and use the word. None of these later developments, however, represented an interruption in the fundamental thrust of the conatus, established at the first moments of matter’s existence: the will to be-here.

Religion projects that relationship is the foundational underpinning of all reality. Before the scientific era, that assumption was extrapolated from humankind’s experience of its own relationality and creativity, and it was expressed by imagining a “humanoid” deity who chose to create the world as his artisanal product the way a human Craftsman would — intentionally.

Later, in Greek hands, Jewish belief in a humanoid “God” became part of a wider assumption that something other than matter existed in the universe. Platonic Greeks posited an invisible substance called “spirit” that was alive, intelligent and could never die. The theory was called “dualism” because it imagined that there were two completely distinct and opposed substances in the world: matter and spirit. It had been falsely assumed that we humans were “spirit” and belonged to another world, a world of spirits, and that we were pathetically alone with our rational intelligence in this world made of matter. But we now know that there is no such “thing” as spirit and there is no “other” world.

When “spirit” disappeared as the source of LIFE, “God,” who was assumed to be spirit, disappeared with it. Matter, without spirit, was orphaned in the reductionist universe and was assumed to be inert, passive, mechanical and utterly devoid of life. It meant that relationship lost its rationale.   Religion, without a philosophical foundation in “spirit,” could not conjure a cosmic “relationship” out of nothing.

But I have a different view. Yes, we are matter, and only matter, the material offspring of this material universe; but rather than eliminating, I maintain that being matter revalidates our spontaneous option for relationship because “Will” is not grounded in rational “spirit” — it is grounded in living matter.

*

LIFE on earth displays a remarkable homogeneity. I see in protozoa and other primitive forms the very same instincts that drive my own conatus. The LIFE we share is similar in all of us and suggests not only the same origination but an ongoing activation of the same energy. The active commonality immediately evokes a single source and matrix without specifying what that source is or how the participation occurs. The only LIFE that exists has been passed on. LIFE, it seems, can only arise from LIFE. Just by recognizing that there is a LIFE-source whose essential appetitive energy all living things autonomously and simultaneously activate as our respective conatus, is sufficient to ground what I mean by religion. We are one thing by reason of LIFE.

Religion comprises the symbolic structures that serve as vehicle for the human relationship to all the participants in this family, including its existential source and matrix. I contend that it is absolutely appropriate to relate to LIFE; LIFE, after all, is responsible for what we are … and that we are-here … even though it is not exclusively human, and in fact cannot be said to reside any­where but in the places where it is observed functioning, i.e., in all things made of matter including us. We know LIFE when we see it. It is, as far as we can tell, exactly as universally immanent as it appears. It can legitimately be characterized as it is seen functioning: an integrative tendency in unconnected atoms and molecules, a vegetative force in plants, a sentient and mobile dynamism in animals, and a conscious intelligent drive in human beings. It is also, as we saw in section 2, hierarchically ordered: each level of emergence incorporates and builds out from the level(s) that went before. No one way of being alive can be said to take priority over others, so none can be said to be secondary, caused, or the result of delusion.

LIFE is also, indisputably, as a posteriori as it appears. In other words, while LIFE as a dormant potential naturally preceded its perceptible emergence in living things, its actual activation was the work of the existing agent or agents — those particular cells — that first became aware of that potential and appropriated for themselves their power to live, i.e., to “will” to be-here. For it seems indisputable that at the moment that LIFE emerged some proto-cell or complex molecule had to morph into a self-embracing organism capable of self-directed behavior focused on self-susten­ance, self-preservation and self-transcending reproduction.

Before we go any further I would like to clarify what exactly our conclusions are saying, and what they are not.

  • This is absolutely not an attempt to prove the existence of the traditional imaginary “God” of supernatural theism.  That “God” was an individual transcendent humanoid entity who created the universe and intervenes in it at will to change the course of cosmic and human history.  He was believed to communicate with humankind through “revelation” and interpersonal contact.   There is no such “God” and this study is not an attempt to conjure “him” into existence, much less to validate the assertions made by those “religions” which claim to be the privileged recipient of his revelations and the executor of his will.
  • We are simply trying to describe LIFE across the entire spectrum of living things by identifying its fundamental characteristics, and we have determined that they are a self-embrace manifested in the conatus — the desire to live — the “Will” to be-here which transcends death through reproduction and lives on in progeny. “Will” characterizes LIFE proportionately at all levels of its manifestations.
  • The conatus is recognizable as an appetite for existential continuation which approximates to desire and will. The organism knows itself to be a “self.” The conatus is an intentionality bound to conscious identity whereby the living entity in question displays a self-interest in its own existential continuity through self-sustenance, self-defense and reproduction. It is a self-embrace.
  • Using abductive reasoning[2] the clear and undeniable presence of the conatus at all levels and all phases of living complexity evokes the concept of a common source and universal presence with an inferential certitude.24 There is no claim, however, that the word “source” gives us any information beyond the bare abstract notion itself. The best explanation for the universal activation of the homogeneous conatus across earth’s entire biota, and plausibly in all of matter, is a common source and continuous matrix.
  • LIFE is matrix. There is no evidence that the alleged “source” is a separate independent organism or entity with a unique or singular identity of its own, much less that it is rational and purposeful. There is nothing to suggest that LIFE is not identical with, or at least indistinguishable from, the living organisms where it is currently being actuated exactly as we observe it. The only information about LIFE that we have is where we see it functioning and what we see it doing: it is an appetite that resides with equal intensity and equal autonomy in all living material organisms proportionate to the level of sophistication of their behavior and their interaction with the world around them.

I hope these clarifications are enough to establish the bare simplicity of what I consider a compelling conclusion: that the LIFE we perceive in ourselves and in all living things includes the notion of existential will or intent allowing for relationship among all living things including LIFE’s source. The desire for the existential continuity (survival) of self through progeny is an intrinsic and universal property of LIFE whereby it reaches out to living things beyond itself, making LIFE at all levels and between levels intrinsically relational.

The implications of these conclusions for the human being are profound, for it means that our natural inclination toward relationship as our primary valence with the world around us finds itself validated in a cosmic milieu and an endless future trajectory, for we are nothing but living matter and we shall always be. LIFE and its reproductive (genetic) relationships absolutely defines what we are because it characterizes everything that has emerged and evolved from the material energy that is this earth. I contend it is appropriate to pursue a grateful engaged relationship to this LIFE in which we “live and move and have our being” because we are genetically related to it biologically and intentionally. For, while there is no indication that LIFE is an individual entity capable of reciprocation, our instinct to be grateful is not unreasonable because of the clear indications of intentionality — “Will” — in matter’s living energy wherever it is found, and retrospectively in its source. The notion of endless existential continuity that intentionally embraces all future progeny is intrinsic to LIFE. As the offspring and actuators of that “Will,” we exist enveloped in its pro-creative embrace. We are a chosen thing.   We are part of a project of love and our very organisms are programmed to further that enterprise.

[1] Wicks, Robert, “Arthur Schopenhauer”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/schopenhauer/&gt;.
[2] “abductive reasoning” (also called abduction, abductive inference or retroduction) is a form of logical inference which goes from an observation to a theory which accounts for the observation, ideally seeking to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as “inference to the best explanation”.[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abductive_reasoning It should be noted that the highest certitude claimed by science is inferential certitude.

The Big Picture (2)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

2

My criticism is that Carroll’s approach, like Gould’s, leaves the knowing subject fragmented, and human knowledge arbitrarily shackled and without the resources needed for some eventual unification. I propose that instead of evoking parallel endeavors that do not overlap (and most certainly do not converge), there should be a hierarchy among the disciplines that reflects the hierarchy that we see in reality.

In the real world we encounter living matter. It is only later, under artificially controlled conditions, that we discover that the components of living organisms can also be found in non-living forms. The hierarchy in nature is integral and organic. That means we experience matter directly and primordially as a living dynamic synthesis before we artificially analyze it into its components and experience those parts as inert. I believe it is more faithful to the data to let our conceptual organization be guided by the organic whole as presented to us by nature rather than to insist that the analysis we perform using artificial intermediaries, dominate experience and determine the direction of discourse.

Nature’s integrated hierarchy should be reflected in human enquiry not as a set of discrete layers one on top of another but rather as an interpenetrating system that allows data and perceptions from the primordial “level” — LIFE — to enter heuristically into the other levels that depend upon it, in order to “guide” enquiry and suggest solutions. Analysis in this case follows and mirrors the living hierarchy as it exists in the real world and is therefore open to an intellectual synthesis that reflects reality.

Under the obsolescent reductionist regimen, the assumed inertness of matter was permitted to dominate all other levels of enquiry and declare them, prejudicially, to be secondary, i.e., “emergent.” A reduced version of living phenomena determined the overarching definition of matter. What I am proposing is the inverse: that the unmistakable perception that matter is alive in living organisms should be allowed to influence the discourse about the “nature” of matter at the level of the guiding “philosophy” and from there, physics and chemistry.

Having a “guiding philosophy” is an integral component of this approach. I have suggested that such a philosophy be derived and continually adjusted “abductively” from the principles, premises and conclusions of the various positive sciences with regard to the nature of matter. That means that there is a constant interaction between what the sciences are discovering about what is “real” in their area of interest and the overall nature of matter, i.e., what it means to exist, which is the purview of philosophy. The fundamental focus is, as always, existence. What is real is what exists — matter’s energy.

What have we learned about existence from the discoveries of science, and what, therefore, are some of the assumptions of this philosophy?

  • The first is that existence is matter and matter is existence. Ideas and their derivatives like “bodiless minds,” spirits, are not real “things” — that includes an erstwhile imagined “Great Spirit.” They do not exist as stand-alone entities. Mind and its ideas are a “state” or “dimension” or “condition” of matter. There is no separate world of “spirits.”
  • Secondly we have learned that matter is not a static “thing” but rather a dynamic energy, a force that resides at the core of all things sustaining them in existence. Matter and energy are not only a conceptual dyad — two different ways of looking at the same thing — they are a dual phenomenal reality: matter may appear as solid particles or as an undulating force that we call waves. Indeed, the primary insight of quantum physics is that matter is both particle and wave — matter and energy — simultaneously. The indeterminacy, superposition, entanglement and tunneling that characterize matter at the quantum level are all reducible to the particle/wave duality of matter.
  • Third, we have learned from biology that in nature, spontaneously and without any intervention from rational beings like humans (or gods), matter is alive. Material organisms are conscious of themselves and of the world around them as distinct and separate. They preserve their living integrity by intentionally relating outside themselves: finding food, avoiding enemies and reproducing.
  • Fourth, self-awareness is an intrinsic feature of LIFE and therefore can be assumed to be an intrinsic potentiality of the matter of which living organisms are constructed. This “interiority” means that consciousness is not different from living organisms as a separate “force” or “power.” Consciousness, in other words, and in contrast to idealist mediaeval scholastics like Thomas Aquinas and Johannes Eckhart, is ancillary to LIFE, not the other way around.

It is essential that we eliminate from this “philosophy” all vestiges of the preconceptions that once assigned an exclusive priority in all areas of endeavor to the experience had at the level of scientific physics and chemistry. Reductionism has had free rein for a century and a half and has failed miserably to solve the problem of the origin of life — to this day still claiming a strictly mechanistic understanding that will be found “any day now.” Furthermore, reductionism, in the form of the “modern synthesis” about evolution — a consensus of the 1940’s that saw evolution as a strictly passive a posteriori event based exclusively on random genetic mutations — has also failed to account for some of the more common examples of rapid genetic adaptability. I claim, to the contrary, that reductionist perceptions are secondary; they are mediated by potentially distorting intromissions like sophisticated tests that use arcane instruments and catalytic reagents inaccessible to the ordinary person. They are not foundational perceptions and they do not represent the living hierarchical synthesis existing in nature and in human intellectual endeavors that mirror nature, like art and poetry.

I propose a phenomenological starting point for this philosophy. The beginnings of human knowledge about matter are the spontaneous unmediated perceptions of unsophisticated, scientifically unprepared culturally socialized human-beings. Let’s take an example. A boy meets a girl; and in each of them there is generated the possibilities of a relationship. One of the spontaneous unreflective assumptions in this encounter is that the other person is a living human being. There is no way that either of them would be the least bit confused about what it means to be human and alive, especially in the context of an intergender contact, even if for some reason they were momentarily deceived. If there were the slightest doubt about it, the process of evaluating the possibility of relationship would be immediately terminated. No professional help is needed to make that judgment. The question is resolvable by the “unaided” individuals themselves using their own resources without having recourse to any outside instrumentation, guidance, mathematical calculations or other substance. The perception is primordial; it is direct, unmediated, spontaneous and, barring an unusual source of deception, intentional or otherwise, inerrant. Human beings know LIFE when they see it, and they very quickly determine whether a living organism is human or not, even in the absence of common language. Both these perceptions, then, of LIFE and for want of a better word, human conscious intelligence, are primordial, unmediated, spontaneous and unmistakable.

The perception on the unsophisticated level is as indisputably objective as any perception had on any “scientific” level of discourse mediated by any instrumentation or procedure of any kind. No experience is any more privileged, true and free from error. Any later perceptions had on other levels that would seem to require that these primordial perceptions be considered illusory are invalidated ad limen.

*

As our example illustrates, our unmediated perceptions are of the macro world and they are objective, verifiable with the consensus of multiple observers and indisputably true. A child can see that a caterpillar is alive, and, through a microscope, that an amoeba or a bacterium is alive. There is nothing privileged — any more objective — about the later perceptions of the isolated inert components of living organisms mediated by sophisticated instruments and expressed in numerical measurements. What is known is LIFE: that this “thing” is alive.

In the case of LIFE at the macro level, the perception is not the result of an inference or mediated through other data. We absolutely know what LIFE is, directly. The very fact that it cannot be defined in other terms suggests that it is as primary a datum as any garnered from some later mediated experience. We know LIFE because we ourselves are alive; we know it connaturally — because we are in direct contact with our own conatus. The perception is infallible.

The issue here is whether you trust the validity of your own experience. Do you know LIFE when you see it … based on your experience of your own life … or are you a robot mesmerized by illusion? And what does it say about you and/or your relationships if you can be easily convinced that everything significant to you and within your range of competence as a human being is illusion. Indeed, if “science” can convince you that your spontaneous perceptions about LIFE are completely unreliable, then perceptions had through the lens of a microscope are equally invalidated because it is the same human being in each case doing the looking.

To insist that somehow the later, reduced apprehension, focused on the components which also exist in full substantial integrity in other, non-living inert forms, reflects the really valid version of reality that, since it does not include the perception of LIFE, means that LIFE must be secondary and therefore introduced or caused, is absurd. In other words, the declaration that LIFE is not primordial but “secondary,” “emergent,” “derived” is an unproven presumption and I contend, prejudiced by the false primacy afforded to scientific perception and therefore to the organism’s components which may be found inert in other instances. The demand that somehow the “emergence” or the “derivation” of LIFE from non-life must be “explained,” is premature and unwarranted. Applying Ockham’s razor, I contend that it is simpler and more justified to see LIFE as the fundamental reality — exactly as we perceive it — the result of the primitive unmediated spontaneous perception, and the primordial datum. That the components of life can also be found in non-living forms, I contend, is really the secondary phenomenon that must be explained. We can see from matter’s role in living organisms that the potential for LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter, for living organisms are all and only matter.

I realize how revolutionary it is to speak in these terms. It has been the claim of the reductionists since time immemorial that LIFE must be the effect of some peculiar configuration of the inert particles of matter, or the integrity of the material universe is compromised. Any other stance, they say, implies that LIFE is a kind of second substance[1] or force other than matter that had to have been introduced into matter from outside matter, i.e., by something that was itself not matter. They reject dualism. I agree and applaud their efforts. But they cannot escape from it. A spirit-matter dualism has been the unquestioned metaphysical assumption in the lands of the West since almost the beginning of the common era. We have since discovered that there is nothing other than matter. So such a spiritualist hypothesis is out of the question. Reductionists continue to defend themselves against an imagined rival dualism because starting from the assumption of inertness, some form of dualism is the only explanation for LIFE: there must be something other than matter to account for LIFE in the reductionist universe.  The assumption of the inertness of matter was set in stone with Descartes who was a convinced dualist, and perfectly content to let “spirit” explain the presence of LIFE.  Indeed, it was the dualist conviction that all vitality including  conscious intelligence belonged exclusively to “spirit” that gave rise to the belief that matter was inert and passive.   Without dualism reductionists have no explanation for LIFE and also have no reason for their reductionism.

This helps elucidate the devastating intellectual effect of Carroll’s and Hawking’s “model-depen­­dent-realism” separating the disciplines into parallel tracks hermetically sealed from one another instead of being hierarchically unified and mutually inter-related. “Model-dependent-realism” is a short-term practical escape that allows the various sciences (and religion) to proceed with their traditional pursuits free of any interference from one another. But in the long-run it militates against the kind of conceptual integration that reflects the integrity of the real world. There is only one beautifully integrated world out there, and our minds are a part of it. There is no reason, in theory, why our ideational constructs cannot reflect that integrity. Reductionism prevents any such unified understanding from occurring.

By invalidly assuming that matter is inert, reductionists are left without an explanation for LIFE. They have no choice but to insist without proof that what appears to be a property that goes beyond the known possibilities of inert matter in isolation, must actually be the effect of some inert mechanical cause that we have yet to discover, and that the living phenomena that result are inexplicably of an exponentially different level of reality from that cause. (… or, more logically, illusion.) Reductionists have no valid right to deny to the components of living organisms the very property of LIFE that they actually experience in them as composites, calling such experience “illusion.” They insist on reducing the living material organisms whose components are all directly experienced as alive, to the components as they could be found outside of living organisms … an experience that in fact they are not having … and then, based on that fantasy, make predictions about mechanistic causation that in fact have never materialized: they still can’t explain in reductionist terms how LIFE is “caused.”

It’s all a work of the imagination. By refusing to accept the living potential inherent in matter — an empirical datum of unimpeachable validity — they are suppressing their and everyone’s first, primordial and immediate experience of LIFE as all and only matter, and therefore that LIFE is incontrovertibly a property of matter needing not a cause but a simple activation for it to emerge and be made manifest.

LIFE is not alone with this characteristic. Electromagnetism, for example, is another property of all matter; but a particular material’s electromagnetic potential is not apparent until something becomes present in the immediate environment that activates that potential and puts it on display. A simple copper wire, for example, appears utterly inert. It shows no electromagnetic characteristics until magnetic lines of force in motion cross the wire. When that happens, an electric current is induced in the wire and travels in a direction and with a power determined by the strength of the magnet, the speed and direction of the moving force-lines.

That the appearance of LIFE in a perceptible form may depend upon a particular configuration of matter’s elements for its activation, is not the same as saying that LIFE was caused or created by that configuration. LIFE is a property not an effect of matter. We experience LIFE long before we are tempted to think of matter as inert and lifeless, and the LIFE we experience are all living material organisms. There is no experience of life that is had outside of material organisms. There is no “immaterial” life that we ever experience anywhere or at any time. We can experience matter that does not appear alive, but we cannot experience life that is not matter.

*

I contend that LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter, every bit as much as mass, electromagnetism, chemical valence or ordinary matter’s four spacetime dimensions. It is this intrinsic potential for vitality that demands entrance into the explanation of everything made of matter, guiding the discourse of the other disciplines that encounter matter in its purely physical and chemical, as well as its living, sentient, conscious and social forms. From this inverse point of view it is clear that the mystery is not how a dead earth can be teeming with life of all kinds, but how the living components of living organisms can also be found in an inert, non-living form. How did this come to be?

In some cases the inert form is clearly secondary — a by-product of living activity. Atmospheric oxygen is a good example. The transformation that occurs in photosynthesis wherein plants utilize carbon dioxide and sunlight to generate living energy, also produces oxygen as exhaust. Oxygen is an inert gas that is necessary for the combustion of nutrients in the cells of other living organisms. It is believed that the early earth had too little oxygen to support animal life. Virtually all the oxygen, therefore, that now makes up more than 20% of our atmosphere, on which all animal life including ourselves depends, was the result of plant respiration over billions of years. In this case a major inert and necessary component of the cellular life of animals and insects is a derivative of living organisms. Another example is limestone, a type of rock that supplies soils with needed calcium, a base that offsets toxic levels of growth-inhibiting acidity. Most limestone is composed of skeletal remains of marine organisms such as coral, forams and molluscs. These organisms have made a significant contribution to the geology of the earth, again, over billions of years. About 10% of the sedimentary rocks of the planet are limestone. It is an inert product of living activity that is in turn essential to the nutritional needs of other forms of life. There is no way you can speak of calcium being an essential component of living organisms without acknowledging that much of the calcium on earth is itself a derivative of LIFE.

In other cases we cannot explain how matter with an intrinsic potential for life ends up appearing dead and inert in any form. I think most people assume that there is a special internal configuration of some type, which may include dynamical forces like light or electricity, which need to be present for the life potential to be activated. But in all cases, the LIFE that appears to emerge, is actually inherent in matter and made manifest under conditions that we have not been able to reproduce probably because LIFE is so natural to matter. There is nothing that requires that LIFE be imagined as coming from outside matter, caused, created, produced and introduced by agents that are themselves outside matter. There is nothing outside matter. Matter is alive and passes life on without assistance from any outside source; whatever causes things to live resides inside matter.

*

Living energy is fundamentally appetitive; it is focused on the desire to stay alive. Reductionist attempts to explain evolution as the purely fortuitous survival of genetic modifications that occurred through random mutation have failed to fully explain adaptation that is more rapid and more specific than the statistical probabilities of classic genetic variation anticipate.[2] Darwin stated that evolution’s tendency to fill out with new species all the various environmental niches that are available to it would be inexplicable if evolution did not have “profitable variations” to select from. Random mutations require a time factor that is too deep to produce “profitable variations” that respond to a rapidly changing environment.[3] McFadden observes:

Adaptive mutations occur more frequently when beneficial to the cell, in direct contradiction of the standard [reductionist] neoDarwinian evolutionary theory, which states that mutations always occur randomly with respect to the direction of evolutionary change. John Cairns’ initial experiments incubated E. coli cells unable to grow on lactose, on media containing lactose, and on parallel media without lactose. If, following standard neoDarwinian evolutionary theory, mutations always occur randomly in relation to the direction of evolutionary change, then the same mutation rate would be expected in both sets of cells. However, Cairns discovered that, after prolonged starvation, mutations that allowed the E. coli to utilize lactose increased in frequency. It appeared that the presence of lactose specifically enhanced mutations that allowed the cells to eat the lactose. The E. coli cell appeared to be able to direct its own mutations.[4]

This recent work in the study of evolutionary biology has suggested quantum mechanisms that could permit genetic drift in the direction indicated by the environment. That means that utilizing purely material means at the quantum level the organism is capable of “reading” (learning from) its environment and “desiring” to change itself accordingly. Evolution would then prove itself to be an active — living — instead of a purely passive — inert — process.

Those words, “learning” and “desiring,” are meant to be metaphoric placeholders for an energy, an inclination, a gradient, a disequilibrium between organism and environment creating a tension at the quantum level that is reflected in the genome of the organism — a disequilibrium to which we have yet to assign an appropriate term. Nevertheless, even without a proper label this recent work indicates that material mechanisms exist that can serve as the instrument for a primitive inclination that approximates “desire.” So while such a mechanism does not suggest the presence of an “immaterial” soul much less intelligence, it must also be said that it certainly does not support the purely mechanistic reductionist thesis that matter is utterly indifferent to its own existence, as it would if it were inert, and that survival is itself a matter of chance. It shows that there is even at the quantum level a proactive bias toward continuity of identity (implying a self-awareness of some kind), and a corresponding material basis that enables it. Matter is a living existential dynamism that “wants” to continue to be-here.

This “wanting” is universal. The fundamental indicator that some mass of matter is alive is that it wants to stay alive. The instinct for self-preservation is one of the unmistakable signs of life and it is perceptibly homogeneous across earth’s entire biota. Called “conatus” in the West since ancient times and most recently by Baruch Spinoza as integral to his system, the instinct is the same wherever it is found from protozoa to the most highly complex mammals. It displays itself always as (1) a flight from predators and other dangers, (2) an aggressive search and seizing of nutrients and (3) a compulsive need to reproduce. Staying alive is surviving. The conatus is an energy, a tension, whose point of equilibrium — secure existence — is by the very nature of things unachievable because matter is entropic.

It is the awareness of this internal contradiction that is the source of the unique pathos of human life.

 

[1] “second substance” was Descartes’ term for “spirit” as opposed to matter.

[2] Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili, The Edge of Life, Penguin Random House, NY, 2014, p. 220 ff.

[3] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859, reprint Random House, NY,1979, p. 167.

[4] Johnjoe McFadden, Quantum Evolution, Harper Collins, London, 2000, p. 77ff; p. 263. Cf also McFadden 2014, op.cit., p. 223.

The Big Picture

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

1

It is not without some trepidation that one contemplates criticizing a “rocket scientist.” After all, it is believed that they are so far beyond the rest of us that we cannot hope to follow much less comprehend what they say; even to question them is pretentious.

Sean Carroll is a rocket scientist. His thumbnail bio found on his website reads:

I’m a theoretical physicist, specializing in field theory, gravitation, cosmology, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and philosophy of physics, with occasional dabblings elsewhere. My latest book, released May 2016, is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. (Dutton, NY 2016) My official title is Research Professor of Physics at Caltech.[1]

He is 49 and married.

I have just read Carroll’s long 440 page book The Big Picture. I would like to comment on it, but I wonder if I will be heard, not only by him, but by the general reader who may share the prejudices of our times that when rocket scientists speak on any matter whatsoever they are beyond challenge except by their own kind, and the rest of us had better shut up and listen.

Rocket scientists have the further unfortunate reputation of believing the popular hype about themselves. They are said to form a closed clique and restrict serious conversation to their own ilk who speak their jargon. Their preference for quantified data expressed in equations, over human language conveyed in grammatical sentences, adds to the impression that they live in a world other than ours. They are accused of believing that (1) only the things in their area of concern, using mathematical terms to express them, can be said to be really “true;” (2) matters of importance in other areas that are not quantifiable are also strictly speaking not verifiable and therefore cannot hope to achieve the designation of “truth” except in the practical sense of “working” within some limited area of applicability. But as far as “reality” is concerned, what is real is physics and chemistry.

People who attempt to apply scientific methodology and logical reasoning to non-quantifiable subject matter like biology, the social sciences and psychology, except for certain ancillary statistical procedures, are really dealing in “metaphor” not knowledge. What is considered “knowledge” in these areas works within the limitations of their applicability but no further. In the past that feature of “scientific” thinking whereby what is truly real can be reduced to the subject matter of physics and inorganic chemistry was called “reductionism.” Everything else was to one degree or another, illusion.   Carroll’s blog uses a quote from Democritus as a sub­title: “In truth, only atoms and the void.” It is part of a larger quote that is usually translated: “There are only atoms and empty space; the rest is opinion.”

Carroll’s latest book The Big Picture ventures out of the strict field of physics and into the murky regions where the rest of us live and try to make sense of our lives. One would hope that he has decided to do so as one of us in our struggle to discover meaning, and not as a superior being who condescends to enter the shadow-world of the mathematically challenged to liberate us from our religious illusions.

Such a sentiment on my part is not empty paranoia. It is well known that some years ago Carroll explicitly turned down an invitation to speak at a conference because “he did not want to appear to be supporting a reconciliation between science and religion.” Granted that he was suspicious of the sponsoring Foundation’s motivation, his own independently antagonistic position denying any possible compatibility between science and religion a priori, is well documented and supports my misgivings. [2]

Given this background, informed readers may be forgiven for expecting that Carroll’s book, which purports to elaborate a science-compatible worldview he calls “poetic naturalism,” will simply be a more reader-friendly version of the same ol’ axe-to-grind: matter is a mindless mechanism and human life is a kind of virtual reality — an illusion — whose social expressions, like religion and politics, are metaphors that we impose upon it. We may be humored in our use of these quaint narratives because it’s all we can handle. But the condition for this concession from the rocket scientists is that we keep to our side of the line and stay out of their way.

Carroll appears to avoid the strictly mechanistic position, what he calls strong reductionism. “Strong reductionism,” he says,

not only wants to relate macroscopic features of the world to some underlying fundamental description but wants to go further by denying that the elements of the emergent ontology even exist, … consciousness is merely an illusion.[3]

Carroll’s characterization, using the word “strong,” allows him to distance himself from it without rejecting the concept entirely.

Against strong reductionism he proposes nothing less than an expanded definition of reality. Acknowledging that “we don’t as yet have a full theory of reality at its deepest level,” he sets up the parameters that will serve as the premise for poetic naturalism throughout the book:

Something is “real” if it plays an essential role in a particular story of reality that, as far as we can tell, provides an accurate description of the world within its domain of applicability: atoms are real, tables are real, consciousness is undoubtedly real. A similar view was put forward by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, under the label “model-dependent-realism.”[4]

Carroll’s efforts seem to be part of a recent tendency among philosophers of science to reopen the issue of the nature of matter. This trend questioning “strong” reductionism can be seen in Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book Mind and Cosmos, though Nagel seems to have identified no alternative but dualism. [5] Noam Chomsky in his 2015 book What Kind of Creatures Are We? [6] says the “nature of matter” is a question unresolved since the days of Descartes and Newton. The final chapter entitled “The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden?” gives a thorough historical scan of the perennial dissatisfaction with the Cartesian (reductionist) view of matter. He cites the modern “pan­psychism” of Galen Strawson as a model counterpoint to the classic unjustified and unquestioned reductionism.[7] Thus Carroll is not alone in his reassessment.

The Hawking-Mlodinov book The Grand Design, however, is of another order altogether. Instead of eschewing strong reductionism, it seems to be doubling down on it even to the point, in my estimation, of jeopardizing the legendary careful procedures and limited claims that are associated with professional scientists. From the very first page of text where the authors cavalierly declare that “Philosophy is dead”[8] to the end of the book where a conjectured hypothesis called “M-Theory” whose unobserved and untested projection of “multiple universes” is adduced to “explain” the otherwise inexplicable fine-tuning of our universe (the basis of the strong anthropic principle), the prestigious Hawking seems hell-bent on eliminating any thought of “explanations” other than that of physics. “The multiverse concept,” they say, “can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.”[9] It seems that Hawking, like Carroll, had a prior agenda: an antipathy toward religion that is willing to sacrifice science’s hard-earned reputation in its service. “But if it [M-theory] is true, …” begins the conditional sentence that lays out the thesis, then the multiverse conjecture would reduce the strong anthropic principle to a weak version, and a universe like ours loses its uniqueness in an ocean of universes whose physical laws vary widely and wildly. Sooner or later one such as ours is bound to emerge.  This is all hypothatcal.

Possibly the most “far out” claim made by Hawking for “M-theory” is that it “explains” how matter can emerge spontaneously out of nothing:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going.”[10]

It’s not clear whether Carroll agrees with this or not. In a review of Hawking’s book published in the Wall Street Journal in 2010, Carrol said of M-theory and the multiverse:

This is a picture that has been put together by a number of theoretical physicists over the past couple of decades, although it remains speculative. Mr. Hawking’s own major contributions have involved the spontaneous creation of the universe “from nothing.” The basic idea comes straight from conventional quantum mechanics: A particle does not have some perfectly well-defined position but rather lives in a superposition of many possible positions. As for particles, the logic goes, so for the entire universe. It exists in a superposition of many possible states, and among those states is utter nothingness. The laws of quantum cosmology purport to show how nothingness can evolve into the universe we see today.[11]

The key word is “speculative.” While speculation has its place in science as in any other field of enquiry, the use of unproven guesswork as if it were an established premise in order to “prove” the definitive elimination of “God” as a reasonable cosmological possibility arouses in me the suspicion that the tail is wagging the dog. “M-theory” is given a scientific status that it does not possess in order to serve as bludgeon for the anti-religion agenda.   Carroll acknowledges: “Whether this ambitious conception is actually correct remains unclear,” and adds incisively in my opinion: “they [Hawking-Mlodinov] advocate ‘model-dependent realism,’ which asserts that the ‘reality’ of various elements of nature depends on the model through which one interprets them. This is an interesting approach to ontology …”[12] He may have changed his mind since he wrote that review in 2010 because his 2016 book embraces exactly such an “interesting approach to ontology.” If what is real can be defined by the categories of enquiry that we humans have devised, then philosophy is indeed “dead” and “being” is reduced to what the sciences can describe. Heidegger would be appalled.

How does Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” compare to all this? It is my opinion that the “naturalism” offered by Carroll’s book does not advance much beyond an arid “physicalism” that he clearly has not abandoned. I also believe he fails either to identify or to create an appropriate “poetry” that might accompany science with some degree of depth and validity — all the while assuring us that religion cannot be that poetry. In fact, it turns out that all he really means by “poetry” is any view of reality that is not “science:”

This brings us to the “poetic” part of poetic naturalism. While there is one world, there are many ways of talking about it. We refer to these ways as “models” or “theories” or “vocabularies” or “stories”; it doesn’t matter. Aristotle and his contemporaries weren’t just making things up; they told a reasonable story about the world they actually observed. Science has discovered another set of stories, harder to perceive but of greater precision and wider applicability.[13]

The “poetry” in “poetic naturalism” is sparse. But sparse can be forgiven if it is deep. What, then, has Carroll accomplished? I think it is at least fair to say that according to the attitudes he revealed in the writing of this book, he appears to elude the description offered by one of his blog respondents in 2009, who said that Carroll displays “the sneering condescension of self-con­gra­tu­la­tory superior-sounding people” … who “demand that we must all act as [they] do.” That characterization seems more applicable to Hawking than the Carroll of the Big Picture.  If that is true, it is in fact quite deep. Whether or not it can translate into words that can serve as “poetry” for the rest of us, such a change of attitude is no small achievement.

*

It appears that Carroll is aware of all these objections. His book cannot be accused of active hostility to religion. But neither does he acknowledge that religion has any compatibility with science; he simply ignores it. He proposes to eschew the strong reductionist view as the privileged expression of truth and to substitute for it a “big picture,” much larger than the old, in which all the various ways of speaking about reality are acknowledged as equally valid and given their rightful place in the panoply of human enquiry and knowledge. This is not quite the capitulation it might appear to be, however. The final result is that while “reductionism” loses its arrogant claims to primacy and exclusivity, it is protected from interference from other world­views and retains its physicalist integrity. It is my opinion that it is a maneuver to keep religion and other non-mechanistic explanations out of cosmology. From my perspective that’s unfortunate. For I am going to claim and try to show that matter, far from being inert and passively mechanical, is a living dynamism, and that a satisfying and mutually supportive philosophic-religious synthesis compatible with science can be constructed on that foundation. I am going to show that a religion exorcized of its demonic elements by a cosmo-ontologically grounded theology can be integrated into a new synthesis as science’s “poetry.” “Poetic naturalism,” something Carroll bit off but could not chew, may still be a worthy and achievable goal.

Fundamentally Carroll says that each “discipline” or area of intellectual pursuit has its own vocabulary based on its own premises, axioms, principles and procedures that are valid within the domain of its applicability but not outside of it. That includes physics. In Carroll’s “big picture” physics supposedly no longer holds pride of place. For example, biologists are under no obligation to speak about LIFE in a way that reduces it to the mechanisms, dynamics, and structural possibilities described by physics and chemistry. The biologists’ starting point is LIFE as a given, and the development of their science is an elaboration of that premise. Biology need not entertain the possibility that the perception of LIFE is simply an illusion. Nor is it legitimate for physics to presume to sit in judgment on the validity of biology’s fundamental assumptions.

It is “philosophy,” as Carroll understands it in The Big Picture, that sits above and sets the boun­daries of the various sciences. Of course, it is not entirely clear what the principles, premises and procedures of this “philosophy” of Carroll’s might be, aside from his endless ruminations which are predictably based on scientific methodology like Bayesian logic and Peirce’s “abduction.” The allusions to philosophers, classical and current, which pepper the book, hardly compensate for his appalling Wittgensteinian disregard for what has gone before him. But we must at least acknowledge that his attitude is far less arrogant than Hawking and Mlodinow who declared flatly at the very beginning of their book: “philosophy is dead.”[14] Carroll in his 2010 WSJ review rightly excoriated them for that. “Our best hope for constructing sensible answers,” he said, “lies with scientists and philosophers working together, not scoring points off one another.”[15]

This holds true for all the “soft” disciplines, according to Carroll. Sociology and Psychology cannot be reduced to physics and chemistry. They each have their own area of applicability and, just as the use of the terminology and procedures of physics would be false and misleading if applied to these sciences, so too the terminology of Psychology and Sociology which acknow­ledge the indisputable role of “purpose” in human life, would be completely inappropriate if applied to the world of inert matter and its dynamics. Indeed, it seems to be “purpose” more than any other source of explanation that Carroll is most determined to keep out of the realm of the physical sciences, while at the same time justifying scientists’ use of those categories as explanations, “metaphorically”.

He thus sets up lines of separation between areas of human pursuit that are reminiscent of the “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) schema presented by Stephen Jay Gould in the 1990’s as a way of ending the dispute between science and religion. In Gould’s view, neither science nor religion should encroach on the other’s “turf.” He imagined each of them to be an independent “magisterium” functioning with its own premises, principles and procedures completely free of interference from the other; they are conceptually incompatible, therefore they are thoroughly incommunicable and mutually meaningless.

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.[16]

This “cease-fire” between science and religion, however, is purchased at a high price. It means that an ultimate unification of human understanding not only has not occurred, but now cannot occur because it has been precluded in principle. Specifically, it ignores the fact that reductionist science has no explanation for the existence of the universe itself, at best trying to justify the assertion that “it just is there and always has been” or that it was a “quantum fluctuation” that just appeared out of nothing. It also dodges the criticism that after more than a century of trying, science has yet to explain either life or “mind” in reductionist terms, endlessly declaring that the allegedly soon-to-be-found explanations will prove to be strictly mechanistic and the macro appearances, illusions as predicted.

Hence, having suppressed enquiry into the possible valid relationship between science and religion, NOMA condemns the enquirer to live forever on two parallel tracks, having recourse to one or the other as the circumstances may require. The end result of this institutionalized parallelism is the sealing off of the various paths of human endeavor from one another and the eternal consignment of the human being to a divided understanding of the universe. We live schizoid lives because of it. The universe, I submit, is just one thing. And the human intellect is part of it — its genetic spawn. And unless you are a dualist spiritualist ready to claim that the human intellect, even though born of this universe, cannot comprehend itself and its material matrix in the same metaphysical terms, you have to aspire to some ultimate unified understanding. Carroll seems to have surrendered physics’ candidacy for that role. Unfortunately, despite the absence of any formal academic consensus on the matter, NOMA has in practice become the accepted wisdom of our times enshrining an ungrounded tacit dualism. Philosophical synthesis has been despaired of in principle. Religionists are complicit in this intellectual irresponsibility, because NOMA, by implying that there is a separate source of understanding for the human mind — namely an imagined immaterial “soul” — gives them full permission to wallow in their discredited belief in the existence of a world other than this one, and to ply their trade of selling access to it.

It is Carroll’s acknowledgement that there is a legitimate and even necessary place for “philosophy,” however informally conceived, whose task it is to assign the limits and boundaries of the disciplines, that provides a potential tool that someday might conceivably override Gould’s NOMA strategy. But Carroll’s limited application of his “philosophy,” and the absence of any adequate explanation of what that “philosophy” might be based on that makes The Big Picture little more than Carroll using his prestige to impose his own personal preferences on the situation, and his preferences hardly go beyond a slightly tamed reductionism and a wider application of the NOMA principle to other fields beside religion. But the difficulty as always is that physicists do not have principles or procedures that are not derived from physics, therefore in Carroll’s hands the enterprise never achieves a philosophical solidity. It is simply a softer version of a “rocket scientist” telling the rest of us what’s real and what’s “poetic,” and it ends up supporting the prejudice that religion is incompatible with science. No surprise here, after all that has been Carroll’s thesis all along.

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_M._Carrol note: Carroll’s blog has a foto of the gravestone of Ludwig Boltzman which has engraved on it his entropy equation, S = k.log W.

[2] Carroll, Sean, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled: Why I won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation.” Slate. May 9, 2013. Cf the same article on Carroll’s blogpost: http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/05/08/on-templeton/

[3] TBP, p.110

[4] Ibid., p. 111 The Book in which that view is presented is called The Grand Design, Bantam books, NY, 2010

[5] Oxford University Press, NY, 2012, for an extensive review see: Tony Equale, “A Dalliance with Dualism?” Nov 2012 tonyequale.wordpress.com/a-dalliance-with-dualism-2

[6] Columbia University Press, NY, 2015

[7] ibid., p. 115

[8] Hawking, op.cit., 2010, p. 5

[9] Ibid., p. 165

[10] Ibid., p. 180

[11] Sean Carroll, “The Why Questions: Chapter and Multiverse” The Wall Street Journal, Sept 24, 2010

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hawking, 2010 op.cit., p. 94

[14] ibid., p.5

[15] Carroll, op.cit., WSJ 9/24/2010

[16] Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Random House, NY, 1999. Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria

The Limits of Knowledge (5)

This entire series, “The limits of Knowledge,” including especially this final installment, assigns distinctly different meanings to the words “knowledge” and “understanding” respectively. Knowledge refers to what is processed by rational intelligence as “facts,” resulting in conceptual (general, abstract) ideas, stored in language’s literal meanings. “Understanding” on the other hand, as I use it refers to apprehensions more broadly based in the body which include reflexive self-con­scious­ness, interpretation, recognition, realization and contemplation, expressible in metaphor, bypassing society’s storehouse of conventional meanings.

The original organic function of abstractive intelligence was not “to know” but to survive. That we “do not know” is not a problem. It is the expression of the very nature of what we are. We were not meant to know; we were meant to survive. “Knowing” what reality is, is not an innate mission or mandate that comes from “God,” as Rahner, Lonergan et al., would have it. Knowing is a task we have set for ourselves. It’s a valid project, but it’s entirely ours; we cannot infer anything transcendent (i.e., “spiritual”) from our voluntary pursuit of it. Nor do we have a right to expect it will tell us what we demand: “knowledge” — meaning our warehoused ideas. Our inability to know is only a problem (or a solution, as the Thomists see it) if we have assumed our conscious “selves” to be like “gods,” immortal spirits, striding above and beyond this world, forming divine immaterial ideas, the ultimate arbiters of all things material. We claim the right to sit in judgment on reality, submitting it to the bar of our dubiously reliable “ideas,” as if our “raptor’s claw” survival tool, abstractive conceptualization and its rationalist logic, were the very Mind of God.

In my opinion, this is the key. We divinized human reasoning — need I add, under the baneful influences of the Platonic-Cartesian illusions about the non-materiality of the human mind and the nature of matter as spirit’s antithesis. From then on anything that does not yield to our concepts is judged irrational and impossible, all evidence to the contrary notwith­standing. For Plato, only the world of ideas was real; for us, in contrast, all that exists is matter’s energy

The evidence, however, does in fact withstand these presumptions about the power of “spirit.” For, however absurd it may seem, we are-here … and we understand it completely! Our being-here-now is something we cannot grasp with our rational intelligence, verbal-conceptual formulations and abstractive tools … but that doesn’t mean either that it is nothing or that we do not understand it. This reduces the range of possibilities offered by our conventional words even as it expands exponentially the potential for an accurate and intimate understanding of existence mediated by other cognitive mechanisms rooted more broadly in the body like metaphor, interpretation, realization, recognition, contemplation and the possibility of relationship. For our attempt to understand our conscious immersion in being-here trans­lates to our attempt to understand the ineffable wordless darkness — material energy with its existential self-embrace which we are.

“Darkness,” of course, is another metaphor for this phenomenon, like emptiness. It is the living dynamism, the hunger of which we are constructed but unable to speak. It is what we are. In order to speak of this immersion we are forced to utilize our arsenal of non-con­ceptual apprehensions, our metaphorical allusions and poetic markers — myths, legends, parable-stories and witness personalities, rituals, symbols, interpretations and, most revealing of all, contemplative silence, to evoke, in a manner as close to presence itself as we can get, the embrace of being-here that we are. All we need do is experience ourselves being-here from moment to moment … the rest follows.

Hence, at the end of the day, we realize we do not “know” ourselves, … but we understand ourselves. We embrace ourselves in the transparent contemplation of a hungry and surviving energy that is “darkness” for our minds … but only for our minds. It is an understanding of existence derived from the realizations and interpretations of what lies hidden in the crystalline clarity of un-knowing and the penetrating silence of interior experience. We understand this desire. It is what we are … it is what everything is. It’s why we understand one another … and all things.

Christian “revelation” and darkness

Chris­tian “revelation,” as traditionally understood and defended, would turn this un-know­ing, this “darkness” into “light,” that is, into conventional knowledge. “Revelation,” meaning beliefs, “factual truth” as we have inherited it, fundamentally claims to present clear ideas. It pretends to take the emptiness and the darkness out of being-here and to articulate it in the form of defined concepts provided by “divine authority” brokered exclusively by an infallible Church and/or the “Book.” Catholic dogma is officially labeled de fide definita (a contradiction in terms, in my opinion). Dogma recapitulates the partializing dis­tortions of abstraction that we have been trying to get in perspective through­out these reflections.

Conventional knowledge — concepts — is the unequivocal goal of Ca­tholic dogmatic definitions. For, by claiming to “transcend” the dead-end of rational enquiry, “revela­tion” attempts to deny the ultimate significance of the unknowability, the Mysterium Tremendum that we have un­covered. The void, the darkness, the emptiness, we must understand, is not a concept. It is the antithesis of all concepts. It is a Mega-Metaphor; the ultimate figure that describes our experience of being-here, our contemplative appreciation of the ineffable living dynamism that drives becoming and gives meaning to our world and our very persons as part of that world. It is the force responsible for evolution. It is sacred for us for it is our very own lust for life. We experience it internally, we understand it intimately and with an incomparable certitude for it is ourselves, but we do not know what it is.

It’s relevant to remember that before the Middle Ages, in the more ancient Christian view, revelation was not considered defined dogma. Revelation for the ancients exclusively meant the Scriptures. John Scotus Eriúgena, for example, believed the result of rational enquiry, Philosophy, was not transcended by the Scriptures but rather was restated there in symbolic terms. The Scriptures, he said, were allegories and symbols, “figures” (= metaphors) that represented the self-same truth discovered by Philosophy. We will recognize this as the view of all the Fathers from Origen to Gregory of Nyssa in a living tradition that went back to Philo of Alexandria. In fact, for this tradition, as far as “knowledge of God” was concerned, Philosophy was the more direct and literal of the two. Scrip­ture was believed to provide stories and symbols designed to make the ethereal truths of Philosophy intelligible to the people who were not philosophers. The real “truth” contained in the symbols of scripture was Philosophical. Scripture did not trump Philosophy. The two were parallel modes of expression. There was only one “truth.”

In this perspective, the bottomless Unknowable Ground into which the roots of reality sank and disappeared was a discovery of Philosophy that always remained insuperable. Ancient Christian mysticism as represen­ted by the apophatic tradition of Pseudo-Diony­sius and Gregory of Nyssa, was constructed on exactly that foundation. Outside of the person and work of Jesus (who was quickly assimilated to Greek Philosophy’s Logos), there was no “new” infor­ma­tion about “God” to be found in the Scriptures. The Scriptures were symbols and stories which blended and flavored the “truth” of the Unfathomable Mystery — giving a “human” face to the Utter Darkness at the base of reality for the edification of the ordinary people. We cannot forget that for the Hebrew founders of Judaism, the only image permitted of Yahweh was an empty tent. “God” was categorically unknowable and the role of revelation was only to provide metaphors for the darkness, not knowledge.

Since the days of the ascendancy of the claims of the infallibility of Ca­tholic dogma, revelation has come to be presented not as figures and me­taphors of the unknowable, but rather as “facts” that were allegedly known but just happened to be beyond unaided discovery and rational comprehension. This had a long historical development. As the Church became associated with, and then progressively exercised in its own right the imperial prerogatives of the theocratic Roman State, its declarations about the “truth” became more arbitrary, authoritarian and “definitive.” Beginning with Nicaea (with the personal intervention of the Emperor Constantine himself), the Church acted as if it had inside information that defined “God,” the Logos, the Trinity, Grace, the after-life, and was the only one that knew exactly how that information was to be used in practice. Fundamentally what it did was to reify legitimate religious metaphors, and turn them into gratuitously infallible dogmatic concepts, entities, qualities, reasons and explanations — facts to be taken literally. The upshot of this was to change the significance of mystery from “unknowable” to “unintelligible,” and the method of expression from metaphor to defined dogmatic verbalized concept. As I grew up, every Catholic schoolchild was taught and believed that the “facts” of religion were fully known. The only “mystery” was what they meant!

But as far as “knowledge” was concerned, it meant that the Catholic Church “knew” everything that could possibly be known about “God.” It solidified the Church’s exclusive and universal role in “salvation.” It was the basis for an ideological absolutism that dominated western culture for a thousand years and still has influence to this day.

preserve the question … celebrate the darkness

The only way for religion to safeguard the integrity of the Unknown that our analysis of presence-in-process revealed to us, is to accept the “truths of revelation” not as conceptualized “facts” but as powerful evocative metaphors, creative instruments designed to preserve the question, not give an answer … to celebrate un-know­ability, the “absent explanation,” the Mysterium Tremendum which is our life … and to bundle the unknown remainder into relationship with what, at root, is our very selves. For traditional Christianity this is not the 180o turn it appears to be. Our mystical traditions, going back past the Middle Ages, beyond the Cappadocian Fathers, beyond even Philo of Alexandria to the origins of Mosaic Yahwism, have always spoken of “God” as the Unknowable One. Moses’ code demanded that carved images be forbidden lest we dared to imagine we “knew” the One-Who-Has-No-Name, Yahweh, which Philo tells us was a word that means “Nameless.”[1]

The abandonment of the claim to possess conceptual “knowledge” of God means the end of “dog­ma.” That will mean the surrender of human control, and an end to the arrogance of the sectarian religious enterprise. It accepts our ignorance. It confirms us in our utter humility, dethrones the overrated rational human “intellect” as the ultimate arbiter of reality, challenges the haughtiness spawned by our technological prowess and the false human superiority it implies, rejects the anti-material, anti-body, cerebral and gender-distorting assumptions of the Platonic-Carte­sian Paradigm, and lays a solid foundation for faith[2] not as arcane “knowledge,” a canonical gnosis, but as unconditional trusting surrender to a darkness we embrace as the very core dynamism of our living selves.

I have intentionally used the same images and metaphors as the mystics, West and East, because I think we are talking about the same experience. Darkness, unknowing, emptiness, are traditional words that de­scribe the fact that the only thing we will ever know, conceptually, is our universe of matter’s energy — including us — endlessly driven to survive in the present moment.

To my mind, this is the basis for the ultimate reconciliation of philosophical enquiry and theological projection. It not only confirms the limited conclusions of rational observation and analysis at all levels, scientific and philosophical, but it also guarantees respect for the metaphors of all religious traditions which are attempting to celebrate and relate to the powerful creative darkness instead of denying it. It also finally includes in the circle of the fully human all those people branded “atheist,” who choose to stand in utter silence before the mystery of it all, because they refuse to apply any metaphors whatsoever to the emptiness, the embrace of existence, that they, like the rest of us, encounter at the core of them­selves. We are all made of the same thirsty clay, the same hungry quest for life. For those of us who know that the very heart of the matter is that we do not know what that is, “atheists” are our coreligionists.

But it should not make us disconsolate to say we do not know. We don’t need to know; for we understand existence, and understanding opens to the possibility of relationship. Once we stop in­sisting that there must be an explanation that can be expressed in the con­ventional terms of our rational knowledge concepts, explanations, reasons, words, logic, analyses, instruments of human control — the immense mystery of being-here discloses itself. For while we may not know what it is, we experience its dynamic power and understand it from within. We possess it completely in conscious form. For we are it. We have no more intimate understanding of anything. We can realize our identity with it; we can hold it and be-hold it in silent contemplation; and we can express, com­mu­ni­cate and celebrate its groaning creative maternal benevolence which gave birth to this astonishing universe, with evocative metaphors, spellbinding myths and ecstatic rituals. And ultimately we embrace it as our very selves …  

But we do not know what it is.

 

[1] Philo of Alexandria, On the Change of Names, II (7) to (14) passim, tr.Yonge, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, p.341-342.
[2] faith: I claim the word “faith” has been hijacked by its association with Christianity’s projections about supernatural realities. Hence it is crossed out. That doesn’t mean it’s eliminated … rather that it no longer has its traditional significance as religious knowledge.