“No one has ever seen God”

This phrase, used in the fourth gospel and the first letter of John, is like a Zen koan.  It is an obvious fact that everyone knows but no one takes the time to think about.  A minute’s reflection, however, will show that it opens the door to a potential enlightenment on the whole issue of “God.”

It tells us not only have we never seen “God,” it intimates that we never will.  What we “see” is what is here: ourselves and our world.  The rest — the “facts” of traditional anthropomorphic religion — is pure projection, and in our day much of it proven false.

But what we do see is massive.  What ishere is immense beyond description: … this universe, too vast, too lost in “deep time,” too complex to even hold in our minds, … this earth, teeming with life forms whose variety seems beyond limit, … and these human organisms of ours whose depths and capacities, even as we use them with ease and agility, we do not understand.  Whatever else might be “out there” that we cannot see, the “elephant in the room” that we can see, is huge.  And except for general categories, we are still very far from even cataloguing it, much less understanding how it all works.

But it’s not a total mystery.  We have already discovered that earlier conjectures about our origins were completely off base.  We know now that we were not fashioned by some rational intelligence for a purpose.  Our bodies were not designed by a divine craftsman to interact with the forces of our world so that we might ultimately “discover” that we really belong to a different one.  We know that our organisms and everything else we see (and even what we can’t) is made of an energy to be-here that we call matter.  Matter’s energy constitutes every form and feature in our universe, from galaxies like our own milky way, billions of stars a hundred thousand light years in diameter spinning around their singularities, to the infinitesimally small nano-consti­tuents of the atom itself — the quarks and leptons that we know exist and the vibrating strings that we suspect are their components.  This energy, which takes various forms and is found continually morphing between invisible energy and visible matter, is what has “created” everything, including whatever it is in our brains that allows us to ask these questions.  We may not know how matter does its tricks, but it is undeniable that it does them, and the result is beyond spectacular: it is this universe of things that spawned and cradles us.

Evolution

Evolution, from our point of view, is the most spectacular trick of all because it is responsible for us being here, and being what we are.  Evolution puts on display in the most unmistakable way, what matter’s energy is all about.  Matter’s energy is about being-here.  And in pursuit of that compulsion it will do absolutely anything … anything that will work.  How our improbable humanity emerged out of that formula for selfish mayhem has been the subject of debate since Darwin: If “survival” is responsible for what things become, how did “being human”  and the “purpose” that characterizes our behavior, get to be here? 

The answer to that, apparently, is that as evolution moved along, increasingly complex biological organisms began participating in their own “natural selection,” at first ever so slightly and then to a greater and greater degree.  “Selection,” which includes mate selection, seems to have hit upon the enhanced survivability that results from working together.  As the social skills necessary for successful life-in-community came to dominate the selection process, physiological changes like the ability to use language and the development of mirror neurons that make empathy possible were teased out of prior structures and, because they worked, remained.  The result, after some millions of years of genetic drift in the direction of community of life, is this human organism as we now have it, adapted to intense and intimate social interaction, and at this point so committed to that path that we are no longer able to survive on our own as individuals.

At one time we thought our minds and hearts belonged to another world — a world of “spirits” — and yearned to return there.  We know now they were really developed by matter’s obsession with continuing to exist as itself in this world.  Our so-called “spiritual” faculties, which we thought were patterned after a spiritual “God” are really the exponentially heightened abilities to understand one another and communicate among ourselves.  Our minds and hearts are the tools for communal survival in this world, not for escape into another.

The Conatus

We humans are a function of material energy.  At no point in our long development did we ever lose the foundational intent of matter’s energy: to be-here.  Despite the range of our interests and intellectual capacities, and the depth of our ideals and cultivated altruism, we are still driven uncontrollably by matter’s instinctive thrust to survive.  Following Spinoza, I call that instinct the conatus.  It is a universal characteristic of every living organism on the planet, and because we experience it within ourselves, there is little need to describe it.  Everyone knows what it’s like.  It comes from being alive.  It dominates our activities.  Our religious tradition thought it was the selfish effect of “Original Sin” and told us it was an ongoing sign of our corruption and guilt.  But now we know better: it’s because we are matter and matter is an energy for being-here.  Another word for that energy is LIFE.

The conatus is not just an “instinct for self-preservation” activated when danger is imminent, but functions as the driving force behind every aspect of organic life that is focused on being-here.  It is the conatus that activates the lust to reproduce … the hunger that impels the search for food … the empathic need to know what others are thinking … the paranoia to protect ourselves from potential threats … the ambition to accumulate security against an uncertain future … and the violence to defend ourselves when we are under attack.

And it is the conatus that is responsible for our sense of the sacred, for it is our need to survive that causes us to trust and worship whatever it is that we think gives LIFE and can guarantee that it will never be taken away.  We are matter’s energy; and therefore we want to be-here.

Survival is not optional.  The perception of what it is that guarantees continued existence changes with time and circumstances, and because of the power of human imagination it may even be pure projection, but whatever it is, we are inclined to surrender to it and drink from its existential well-spring.  It is the spontaneous reaction of the organism.  In our times and emerging from our peculiar religious history, we have a set of complex perceptions in that regard that are unique to us: some are positive, deriving from our knowledge of where existence actually comes from, and some are negative; they are the repudiation of perceptions of the past that have proven erroneous.

Whatever the perception, however, clinging to LIFE is an irrepressible feature of organisms constructed of material energy and for humans it necessarily includes the community.  Our community, without which we cannot survive, is sacred to us.  Material energy is focused on survival, and what secures survival must necessarily dominate the affective life of the organism.  It is a biological inevitability which is borne out by our observations of every biological organism on earth: we are all driven by our conatus.

It is exactly here that any thought that the conatus  leaves us subjectively enclosed is vanquished.  For the conatus is common to all biological organisms, not just human.  Thus our sense of the sacred, which is unique to us, is seen to have a ground that crosses specific (i.e., species) boundaries.  We are all made of the same clay and it is that “clay,” i.e., matter, that is at the base of everything we are, everything we have and everything we doLIFE is sacred to us: we can’t help it! 

Unless you could prove that LIFE came from something other than material energy, the display of its characteristics in biological matter is reasonably “retropolated” to inanimate matter.  Matter, in other words — all matter — contains within itself the power of LIFE.  Matter is somehow “alive.”

“God”

“God,” we have to acknowledge, is first and foremost an idea of ours.  “No one has ever seen ‘God’” is another way of saying that.  “God” is not an entity we can point to; “God” is the product of the imagination of those pre-scientific ancestors of ours who assumed that a rational person was the artisan and architect of the universe.  They can hardly be blamed.

First of all “God” was imagined as “Creator.”  Then, mystics who experienced an affective “oneness” with the universe believed they were in direct contact with this “God,” the one source of it all.  The characteristics of their experience, however, have been shown to be consistent with an organism made entirely of matter becoming conscious of sharing an identity with the universe of matter.[1]  (The two propositions, however, might ultimately be identical.)  Third, we have seen that matter’s energy as the source of the conatus is also responsible for our sense of the sacred and the affective intensity surrounding it.  Our sense of the sacred is a function of existential need.

Matter’s energy is completely immanent.  It is the matrix in which we live and move and have our being; it is constitutive of everything that we are as human beings and everything with which we interact on this earth, beginning with human community; it is the source, the archē, the LIFE force dwelling at the intimate core of all things.  It seems to fulfill in every way the conditions once met by “God” except those that projected a rational “person”-entity.  If we take the concept “God” functionally, matter’s energy is “God.”

Souls, “selves” and eternal LIFE

Matter’s energy grounds our sense of the sacred, but it does it by way of responding to existential need.  One of the characteristics of our ancestral religion of the Book was that its “God” made promises that related to that need.  The Jewish “contract” with Yahweh promised survival in the form of community prosperity and national ascendancy.  The earliest Christians saw the fulfillment of that promise in the imminent coming of “God’s” kingdom on earth, an apocalyptic event that would immortalize the earth and divinize the flesh of the “chosen” community.  When that promise failed to materialize, “salvation” lost its earthly dimension; “survival-after-death” was projected onto an imaginary world of spirits and reinterpreted as the immortality of the individual bodiless “soul” whose happiness is earned — quid pro quo — exclusively through obedient membership in the Christian Church identified with the Roman Empire and its successor states.

How, for its part, does matter’s energy guarantee LIFE for needy mortals? … through the aware­ness that WE ARE matter’s energy and matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed.  It is existence itself … something as close to esse in se subsistens as we will ever see.  There is no other esse, and we are exactly THAT, nothing less. 

WE ARE our bodies.  Our “selves” are not “things” like “souls,” independent of our bodies.  The “self” is the self-consciousness that characterizes all living things without which no organism would be able to defend itself: respond to its need for food, find mates, escape danger, fight off enemies.  “Selves” are the emanation of the living biological organism and its social identity; they are the gathered self-interest, the conatus collected from hundreds of billions of cells locked together in organismic collaboration and with other organisms.  Selves do not exist apart from the organism-in-community that emanates them.  The “self” is the self-awareness of this socialized body.  When this body loses its coherence and returns to less complex configurations of material energy at death, the human “self” disappears.  In fact, if key areas of the brain are damaged or destroyed, the “self” may even disappear before death.  But the material energy does not.

Once our perception of who we are shifts from an imaginary permanent “self” to an identification with the totality of matter’s energy as the real permanent reality in a material universe, our demand for an individual “salvation” ceases to make sense.  During life the conatus still functions as always, prioritizing the survival of the living organism-in-community, but we will be discouraged from allowing that instinct to construct an imaginary afterlife.  Our new angle of vision provides the basis for a significant reduction in self-concern, and a reason to bask securely in the well-being of the whole — the LIFE of this universe in which we live and move and have our being — and to trust where it is taking us … because where it goes, everything we are goes with it..

Every particle in our body has been here since the beginning of our cosmos, and it is guaranteed to be part of whatever happens in the future.  If in the course of the last 13.7 billion years beginning with just quarks and leptons evolution has achieved such marvels as populate our world, what should we expect from the next 13.7 billion years?  We can’t imagine.  Everything will still be here and part of that development … everything, that is, except our “selves.”  We will be re-used endlessly, just as our matrix-creator — matter’s energy — is used and re-used so totally that there is no “Self” there at all.

Kenosis

Our “selves” disappear.  Our shift to the primacy of the totality upends the extreme focus on the individual that has characterized mainstream western cultural development since the middle ages, impelled by Christianity.  It seems to correspond appropriately and in parallel with the de-individualization of the god-function that accompanies that shift.  With our new cosmo-ontology, the emphasis is no longer on a transcendent solitary “One” as Plato imagined it, lost in the narcissistic bliss of self-contemplation, but rather on a diffuse immanent LIFE that is “self-less-ly” held in common by all things, and in which “we live and move and have our being.”  In our case it allows human participation in the extrusion process even to the point of self-extinc­tion if we so choose.  Borrowing from our tradition an apt term and imagery I call this dynamic a kenosis — a “self-emptying” — fully aware of the paradox: that it is a personalist metaphor for a communal process that is in fact utterly devoid of self … a process with which we merge fully and can embrace as our own at death.

But we do not relate to existential issues outside of personalist categories, because our conatus as interpreted by our culture has made us “selves,” “persons.”  Our very survival is interpersonal.  Creative interactions of this significance in our human world are only done by persons and persons “read” them as a “self-dona­tion.”  The “self” that we received from our parents, even though their coitus was not directed toward us personally, we gratefully acknowledge as their gift to us.  It is entirely understandable that we would ascribe analogous phenomena occurring on a cosmic scale to a cosmic “person.”  And, as long as we are aware that it is a metaphor, I see no reason why we should stop.  As a metaphor that captures the intense feelings that the gift of LIFE evokes in us, nothing else comes close.  But as an analogue for an imaginary “entity” like Plato’s “One,” it is completely misleading.  LIFE is not an individual entity of any kind, much less a “person” who does these things for reasons.  It is present, shared and fully operational in all things.  It is esse, the existential energy of matter.

But for those of us who have been subjected to the assumptions of reductionist materialism — the orphaned residue of Cartesian dualism — the question always remains: is this LIFE really alive? … is it benevolent?  … or is it a mere physical force like gravity or voltage that only creates the illusion of being alive?

Obviously it is not “personal” in our sense of the word.  The ultimate question is whether LIFE represents some kind of transcendent benevolence.  The answer, it seems to me, lies in how it displays itself in what it has become.  For it is material energy that has emerged as LIFE, and in our case human LIFE.  Not only is our world full of LIFE flourishing in forms too numerous to count, but we have our very selves as lab rats to probe and question.  We are the observable display of matter’s properties and intrinsic capacities and we have a privileged insider’s view.  What are we?  Are we alive?  Are we “benevolent,” or as Daniel Dennett suggests, are we just robots and zombies and our very self-consciousness merely another robotic propertyAfter all, we ourselves ARE what we are asking about, for we are matter’s energy in one of its living organic forms.  We are the ones who have to answer that question.

The Psalmist asks: “When will I see the face of God?”  Those who share that yearning should keep in mind “John’s” warning: “No one has ever seen God.”  The visible manifestations of material energy that abound in our universe and in our human organisms-in-community are the only indications of “God” that we have, and if we follow the counsels in John’s letter, our love for one another — which mirrors and re-activates the universal kenosis of our source and matrix — is what makes “God” visible.

[1] Cf previous posts on this blog: “Matter and Mysticism” I and II, Nov 30 and Dec 7, 2014 respectively.

Autogenic Disease

The following piece is based on a segment from a work in progress.  The book as planned will deal with the issues surrounding the breakdown of mediaeval Christendom resulting in the Reforma­tion of the 16th century that divided Christian Europe between Protestants and Catholics.  My reflections on that historical watershed, influenced by the transcendent materialism that I have become convinced represents the real world, go beyond the standard religious interpretations.  This essay and its sequel comes from that point in the book where I am trying to stake out the ground from which I will view events and base my judgments.

 Autogenic Disease

So, having explained that the central focus of this study will not be politics, or ecclesiastical allegiance, or theological distinctions, or any of the social, technical and economic developments of the age, but rather the much deeper and more elusive issue of religion, allow me to begin to flesh out the elements of what I believe is involved.

Working backwards, I want to begin with a key antithetical notion: “autogenic disease.” I am using the term to refer to what I claim is a generalized, multi-millennial, specifically Western pathology where the human mind, in an act that seems to belie the presence of intelligence, identifies its own body as alien and tries to destroy it.  Contrary to what we in the West like to tell ourselves about our mental prowess, and despite all our brainy achievements in science and technology and our reputed “materialism,” the fact that we are biological organisms in a material universe seems to exceed our ability to comprehend.  We do not accept it, and we do everything in our power to refute, ignore, disregard and repress it.  We may admit we have … but we do not believe we are … bodies … and we conceive our destiny in other terms entirely.

That other destiny, of course, is spiritual immortality. Thus is generated the potential for an insuperable disgust for what we actually are.  We are biological organisms in a material world where all biological organisms of whatever kind dieWestern culture, forged in the crucible of its own distorted version of Jesus’ message, does not believe it; and that, I submit, is the source of our malaise.  Western Christianity appropriated the message of Jesus and used it to support a ritual and symbolic form of Platonism.  It claimed that we die only because our material bodies were corrupted by human sin; it projected another world of “spirit” from which we fell and to which we long to return … and in so doing internalized a disdain for all things material, including our own bodies.  That religion shaped European humankind whose culture now rules the planet.  The suggestion that this is an ominous development that presages some kind of universal disaster, is fully intended.

Among the myriads of life forms that the earth has spawned, humankind is the only one that is capable of this kind of insanity, for we are the only species that can despise itself.  To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault.  It’s a function of having an imagination.  Since we can imagine being other than we are, we are capable of wishing we were especially when things are not going well.  If being happy can be defined as “having what you want … and wanting what you have,” Western culture promotes unhappiness for in fact, it tells us to not like what we have, and it encourages us to want what is beyond any possibility of obtaining.

In our Christian past we had other ways of obeying our cultural imperatives and escaping our organic reality.  Mainstream monasticism is a prime example; it offered salvation for the “spirit” through a lifelong programmed pursuit of the “mortification” of the flesh.  But generally we have abandoned it, due in part to the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, which tried to make everyone a monk and everyday life monastic, rendering withdrawal into monasteries superfluous.  In modern times our escape vehicle is technology.  We are persuaded that our technology will launch us out of our earthbound lives and into an orbit of cerebral happiness.  At the present moment, the pathology of displacement has gone so far that many of our people look forward to the day when technology will make us something other than human.

Popular culture generates images that reflect this dream: bionic individuals, robotic cops, iron men, mutants and laboratory-created superhumans of various kinds.  These projections are more than adolescent cinematic fantasy.  Already many of us have bodies that have been significantly modified by medical science with joint replacements, coronary bypasses, organ transplants, pacemakers, and a warehouse of chemicals that sustain a functioning balance that our bodies may not be able to maintain on their own.  We believe if only we have enough time that someday we will conquer all the inimical forces of nature that cripple us and embitter our lives … we will provide ourselves with the means for the universal absorption of knowledge and control … we will overcome all our shortcomings, our mental and physical limitations, our vulnerability to disease, the causes of misunderstanding and relational disharmony … we will do away with diminishment of any kind … and, yes, someday we will conquer death.

For all our materialism, you will notice, these projected conquests anticipate transcending the stubborn, stultifying impotence of our biological organisms — organic matter that must struggle to survive in a material universe.  We see all our problems as stemming from the inefficiency of our bodies to deal with the invariable “laws” of nature.  Our bodies do not correspond to the limitless scope of our imagination.  We can imagine anything, but reality gets in the way — specifically this body-in-this-world, ours or others,’ betrays us — and we find we are just not strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or detached enough to realize our dreams.  What we want slips through our fingers.  It is all reducible to a mind-body disparity: our minds can think what our bodies-in-this-world cannot do and we will not accept it … and here’s the rub: our cultural Mother has told us since time immemorial we don’t have to.  It tells us to strive for what we don’t … and can’t … have: to live forever in a state of ecstatic happiness.

We have assigned to our technology no less a mission than overcoming the limitations of the way matter has evolved on earth since our planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago.  Our efforts are based on a conviction that all our “unhappiness” is due to nature.  And so we want to learn how nature works, not because we cherish it and want to collaborate with it, but in order to transcend it and advance our principal goal: to no longer have this body in this universe.  We don’t want what we have … we don’t like what we are: human beings.

Every victory in this direction encourages us to trust the path we have taken and to believe in “the dream:” someday we will redesign everything; we will become strong, invulnerable, immortal … and we will be happy … because someday we will stop being what we are; we will stop being human beings.

If getting what you want is one path to “happiness,” wanting what you’ve got is the other.  While these two statements seem to have parity when viewed abstractly, in practice they are wildly disproportionate.  For in the West, after two millennia of Christian tutelage we have placed all our bets on the first and abandoned the second.  What we want is to live forever, and despite the overwhelming evidence that it is the most pathetic of delusions, we now think we have a natural right to it.  That we are not immortal we take as standing proof that there was indeed some kind of “fall” that caused all this.  For the last 2000 years all our energies have been focused on overcoming the “limitations” of the body — flying off to some spirit world where perishing matter cannot follow us — a world concocted by our “spiritual” imagination.  And even when people stopped believing in the other world and spirits, they didn’t change their immortal aspirations — which by that time had been elevated into unquestioned “truth” — they simply re-applied the dynamic to another content: the technological paradise.

Hence from paradise in another world to paradise in this one, it’s still “paradise” — a never-never land that does not exist.  The result is that the practical pursuit of learning to live with what-we-are and adjust our wants (and our sense of the sacred) to what we’ve got has totally atrophied.  This madness of make-believe has so penetrated every aspect of our lives that our global economic system itself is irreversibly grounded on the myth of endless expansion, satisfying a population of endlessly increasing numbers with limitless desires to accumulate and consume, provisioned by a universe made to yield endless supplies to our endlessly innovative technology.  Our global survival system is locked into these fantasies as its only source of drive and direction; the system runs on investment, and investors will not buy stock unless they see growth.  Growth is sine qua non, despite the known fact that the earth’s resources cannot meet our imagined needs.  It’s as if we were on automatic pilot watching ourselves plummet to disaster, powerless over the very machine we created to carry us aloft.

The role of the Church in promoting impossible aspirations has now been taken over by the new ideological guardians of our well-being: the entities responsible for the production of goods and services and insuring their avid consumption.  The message to consumers of an earthly “paradise” is being delivered by a chain of interconnected actors: commercial advertisers, career politicians, purveyors of mass information, paid by wealthy corporate providers of consumer products and services, whose businesses are kept growing by powerful financial, energy and human resource enterprises protected by a coercive legal and police apparatus all run by the very same wealthy and powerful people.  What drives it all is the new “immortality:” the promise of the happiness of being endlessly lifted out of the limitations of our material organisms by technology.

Death is “conquered” (in reality, endlessly postponed) by medical technology … or when that fails, death is held in contempt as we are wont to do with an opponent who constantly gives the lie to our pretensions.  We take a delusional satisfaction in projecting that someday we will finally get what we want — we will win the definitive victory over death.  In the meantime we forego the contentment that comes from cherishing what we are … wanting what we’ve got.

Cherishing what we are.  Most people have never had the experience.  “Stress reduction” programs … therapies, exercises, meditations, rituals … that aim at achieving such an adjustment are relegated to the private sphere where they are tolerated as “personal taste” or derided as crutches for the weak, but no one would ever consider organizing society around them.  And so “speech” that promotes exaggerated need and discontent in order to increase sales is officially “protected.” It is not entirely unlike the mediaeval Church that told us we were all corrupt from birth and damned without its products and services.  That “speech” was also officially protected.

Our wasteful economy is based on the illusion of endless resources mentioned above; it literally cannot function without it.  There is no thought of promoting and providing contentment and stasis: a zero-growth goal requiring, first of all, peace of mind that comes from the elimination of inequality, a guaranteed access to the basics for all, and then simplification, reduction in consumption, the encouragement to eliminate the superfluous, avoid wasteful display and unnecessary luxury, aim at optimal functional efficiency in the energy-consuming machines we use every day: our cars, our houses with their refrigerators, washer-dryers, cook-stoves etc.  The word “luxury” has lost its original sense of being “too much” — wanton excess — and has now become a necessity, a desideratum, encouraged, of course, by those who profit from the sale of luxury goods and who are fast becoming the only voice we hear.  Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, the conspicuous display of one’s “achievement” as a human being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything provided by technology — the new paradise.  This pursuit, I contend, is a major source of the inequalities among us; for in order that some may acquire more than they need, others are forced to live with less than they need.  Pie on earth is as dysfunctional for us as pie in the sky.

Do not misunderstand.  I am not starting a new list of do’s and don’ts or advocating the rejection of technology.  I am using these examples to illustrate a mindset.  I am talking about changing the foundational attitudes that stem from our primary perceived relationship: who we think we are and how we are related to the world around us.  How we apply technology to everyday life follows from those attitudes; that primary relationship is what I mean by religion.  

Next post:  Energy and entropy, LIFE and death:

Morality in a Material Universe (part one)

(This is the first installment of an essay that will be posted in three parts.  It’s been divided  for readability.  Those interested in looking at the whole piece will find it as a “page” with the same title in the sidebar to the right below the books.)

 Morality, like language, is a living thing.  And like all living things it evolves. The changes that occur in that evolution will be deep or superficial, rapid or slow, depending on variables that influence the process.  One of those variables, similar to a grammar scheme for a language, is codification and its rational justification.

In both language and morality, the influence of codification is artificial, unnatural, imposed from without on a living process by a relatively arbitrary rationalization.  It is a theoretical construct designed, after the fact, to make it all “make sense;” the overall intent is to insure that things do not change. 

But change breaks through those barriers as it must because morality evolves, and it results in an irreconcilable antinomy between practice and theory.  New behavior no longer “makes sense” by the accepted standards and tends to be considered immoral.  The following essay is an attempt to elucidate the traditional rational ground that once justified our western “Judaeo-Christian” moral inheritance and guaranteed its immutability.  I want to understand why it no longer makes sense and ask how we should respond. 

Hopefully, understanding the living process of moral evolution will make it possible for us to integrate with it as creative and responsible participants.

 1

In a universe constructed by “Spirit,” reality is the product of “Mind” and rationality is the key to understanding it.  What things do is determined by what they are, and what things are was conceived in advance by the “Mind” that designed and gave them their “purpose.”  So by knowing what something was — how it was structured — one could discern its purpose and how it should act.  The procedure for arriving at conclusions about human morality — how we should act — was, broadly speaking, deductive; it is what the philosophers call a priori: you reason from a known prior premise (human nature) to a posterior conclusion (right human behavior).

In a universe constructed by matter, on the other hand, reality is the result of the trial and error meanderings of an irrepressible energy to exist.  What things are is determined by what has been able to survive by interacting successfully with its material environment.  In a material universe the survival activity of entities determines their structure, not the other way around.  Matter has only one goal and therefore there is only one “purpose” common to all things: to exist.  Unlike a universe of spirit, what things are (their nature) is determined by what they do that works.  By examining the way something survives, therefore, one is able to determine why it developed the structure that it has.  And that structure has no other purpose than to serve as a platform for the continuation of the behavior that works.  The method of discerning the relationship between nature and action in this case is inductive … and the procedures are called a posteriori: human behavior shaped and therefore explains the human body and mind and the communities that sustain them.

The “purpose” of existence is to exist — to survive.  The natural selection that produced living things of all kinds was driven exclusively by their ability to exist.  Once human beings came along, however, the game changed.  The emergence of language in community required larger brain power.  Humankind’s imagination, exponentially expanded over that of other animals and colletively employed, became its principal tool of survival.  Humans understand the sequential nature of time; they can anticipate future events and make plans together accordingly.  Hence “purpose” became the key to human behavior and explains the phenomenal success of the species which now dominates the planet.  With humans purpose was introduced into the universe for the first time.

Purpose is natural to human behavior, so it is natural that humans would project purpose onto the the very process of evolutionary emergence itself.  In the West we have traditionally believed a “Mind” like ours made everything, and like our minds it did what it did for a purpose.

We have learned, however, that what made everything was not “Mind” but rather an irrepressible energy to exist, esse.  What evolved from esse was a function of esse; by surviving, it would slowly develop those structures that would allow it to do what was necessary to continue to be-here, to survive.

This means that it was human behavior in society that slowly sculpted the hominid body and its psychic characteristics out of the granite potential of our simian ancestors; it was not the other way around.  Human social behavior is morality; hence we say that it was our moral choices beginning in the distant past that shaped what we are.  Humans are moral beings because they decided long ago that for human society to survive, sustain its individual members and thrive, “moral” behavior was demanded.  Our life in society made us “human.”

This was not an instantaneous process.  These constructions have taken place over eons of geologic time and they are obviously still a work in progress.  The first species of homo, homo erectus, a direct ancestor of homo sapiens, emerged from the australopithecines 2.4 million years ago and human behavior in society has been evolving ever since, refining itself by prioritizing the choices that work to protect and enhance human-life-in-society.  Our body and mind was given its current size, shape, physical features and psychic predispositions by that process.  Many of our special characteristics, like the physical forms of our genders and our sense of the sacred come from there.  Everything we are is a combination of our organic inheritance and human choice in society.

The “selections” made in this regard were not exclusively empathic.  The absence of any subspecies of homo other than ours suggests that our brains were originally xenophobic — pro­grammed for the visceral rejection of others, hominid or not, that did not share our identity.  It was the way we survived; it worked for us and so xenophobia was “selected.”  It’s no surprise, then, that beginning in the 16th century these same brains slaughtered, brutalized, enslaved, and exploited dark-skinned “heathen”peoples all over the globe creating inequities that are with us still; it confirms the survival etiology of our organic structures.  If our morality now condemns such practices, it is because they are no longer seen as conducive to collective survival; but in the 1500’s no amount of “deduction from Natural Law” or Catholic belief and practice had any deterrent effect on the baptized “conquerors” of New Spain and the colonizers that came after them.  Even after the issue was publicly debated by Catholic theologians before Phillip II in the 1540’s, the practice of encomienda, “christianizing slavery,” was upheld as “moral.”  So much for the rational deduction of morality from the principles of natural law.

Morality is what works for us

I am talking about the fundamental direction that development takes in a material universe; development does not come rationally reasoned from the top down, it goes non-rationally from the bottom up.  What works, survives, whether it makes sense or not; that’s how things evolve.  And the structural variations that work better will endure and eventually displace the others leaving a trail of what may appear to be rationally designed modifications.

I am trying to enunciate the general principles of organic construction and therefore a way of understanding the character of the entities that have evolved in our universe of matter, and that includes us.  Evolution explains reality at all times and at all levels of development.  It is as true for us today as it was 2.4 million years ago.  Behavior that guarantees survival determines genetics; and genetics establishes the parameters of potential future behavior — in the case of humans, it determines the possible moral choices in the struggles of societal survival still to come.  While there is always a mutual causality between choice and genetics, successful survival behavior remains the heuristic priority.  That means that purpose and choice, albeit highly conditioned and certainly not in the short run, guide the process.

A moral code is the pragmatic result of human beings “muddling through” life-in-society and, over time, deciding together what works and what doesn’t work.  The biblical code that we inherited — do not kill, do not steal, do not covet your neighbors wife or goods, do not lie, respect your parents — was the result of that same process of trial and error coming to conclusions of increasing consensus among the individuals of our social /cultural continuum.  The “ten” commandments were a compendium of what was working when Exodus was redacted in the 6th century bce.  “God” did not promulgate them.  “God” was called on to justify and sacralize the existing social order and its self-understanding.  And it is important to emphasize, “religion,” the fear and exclusive worship of the tribe’s “gods,” was an integral part of it.  It should not surprise us that it still is.  In the ancient past we survived by clan and tribe; we are predisposed to protect and advance them.  Universalism is the growing effect of gloablization, not its cause.

Morality is not a matter of rational principles inferred by analyzing “human nature” and determining its “purpose.”  There is no “natural law,” and the only purpose of human life, as for all life, is to exist.  How existence can be achieved and enhanced for all in the huge complex societies that we have developed to protect ourselves from the elements and from the natural selfishness common to all organisms, is our morality.  It is a human project.  Morality is what we have decided is the “right” way to live, and as time goes by our organisms are shaped by our decisions.  If human survival has moved from tribe to global civilization, our bodies and instincts as yet have not.  In time they will.

Parenthetically: just as there is no “natural law” embedded in human nature by a rational “God” that must be obeyed, so too there is no “natural law” of the jungle implanted by evolution to which we must surrender.  I am not calling for a Nietzschean return to primal forces — the substitution of one “natural law” for another.  I am saying there is no natural “law” of any kind; we create the law we want to live by and, in the long run, we create ourselves.

We are organically conditioned by the past choices our species has made, but only relatively.  Selected predispositions like xenophobia that served survival in the past will become meaningless in time because as our collectivities expand and overlap the “tribe” will become all-inclu­sive.  We already see that process under way.  If the growing global vision of ethnic inclusiveness survives, in time the organic substrate will catch up and xenophobia will be “de-selected.”  It will take a very long time, but it will happen.

Morality is only secondarily what we should do, primarily it is who we want to be, and tribal religion has, up to now, always been the principal tool for articulating and implementing it.  It seems likely that that will also change and I believe we are seeing it beginning right before our eyes: tribal religion is being replaced by a universal vision of right behavior.  This evolving process holds true in all areas.  We can also anticipate a change in the secondary sex characteristics of the human genders; if present trends are any indication of what the future holds, la différence will eventually disappear.  As they did in the past, over time our choices will shape our bodies and our minds.   That’s the way things work in a material universe.

Asperger’s Syndrome — a reflection

A propos of my discussion of Asperger’s Syndrome in this blog, a short book review in Salon  of Gary Greenberg’s recently published Book of Woe, by Laura Miller  http://www.salon.com/2013/05/05/the_book_of_woe_psychiatrys_last_stand/ deals with some of the same issues affecting other “mental disorders.”  It is an interesting read.  In the last paragraph of the review Miller mentions that Asperger’s Syndrome has been dropped from the official list (known as DSM-5) of recognized “mental disorders.”  In the case of AS the only things known are the symptoms (more or less) not either the cause or the cure.  That doesn’t mean that there might not in fact be a physiological basis for AS … and I for one wish there were, it would make things a lot easier to deal with … I am not arguing to preclude testing that would reveal that fact, if it is indeed a fact.  But if, as in the case of ADD, a generation of kids who were lost to education because of poor teachers or poor curricula (and the venality of corrupt researchers), are put on drugs like Ritalin, some for the rest of their lives, we have not only done further damage to the victims but we have not even identified the problem.  I believe the Greenberg book as reported in Miller’s review supports my argument that our cultural preference for the “medical solution” may prevent us from looking elsewhere — like making a critical appraisal of the values we live by.

They say that Mahatma Gandhi was once asked by a journalist, “Sir, what do you think about Western civilization”? and Gandhi was reported to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”  As I think most people read that remark, he wasn’t (only) joking.  Gandhi seemed to think that Western culture is at least … pre-civilized.  In trying to plumb what his comment may mean for us today, beyond what he probably had in mind about colonialism, … and in an attempt to discern the path that may lead to becoming civilized, I want to explore a “disease” called Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).

In researching what is known about this condition, I quickly learned that the short answer is “absolutely nothing.”  Not only is there no known etiology or cure, there is not even agreement about the package of symptoms that identify it.  They “guess” that it must have a genetic basis but no procedures so far support that conclusion.  The origins of its discovery are hardly more substantial.  The name comes from a German pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who in 1944 wrote about four “autistic” children in his care who happened to display the variance of having no loss of cognitive or linguistic development.  He called it an “autistic psychopathy.”  A propos of my point, it’s interesting that Dr. Asperger’s analysis is no longer considered adequate.  Classified as an “autism spectrum disorder”(ASD) some prefer to call it a “high functioning autism” rather than give it a separate diagnosis.  ASD’s were originally thought to be  diseases of children, but the diagnosis of AS in adults is increasingly common.  Could all this lack of clarity indicate that with AS we may be dealing with another example of medical overreach — calling things diseases that perhaps ought to be addressed as something else?

Besides, how has the “syndrome” even been identified with autism?  It seems that the one common factor that has the “doctors” convinced that there is an autistic pathology here is the lack of social skills, manifest in a decided absence of empathy — the ability to feel with others, and to “get” what they are saying about themselves and their needs even when they are not directly referring to them.  This is often accompanied by varying degrees of obsessive fixation on the technical details of things that are irrelevant to human interaction.  Here is a typical  list of “symptoms,” this one from the Mayo clinic:

Asperger’s syndrome symptoms include:

  • Engaging in one-sided, long-winded conversations, without noticing if the listener is listening or trying to change the subject

  • Displaying unusual nonverbal communication, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, or awkward body postures and gestures

  • Showing an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects, such as baseball statistics, train schedules, weather or snakes

  • Appearing not to understand, empathize with or be sensitive to others’ feelings

  • Having a hard time “reading” other people or understanding humor

  • Speaking in a voice that is monotonous, rigid or unusually fast

  • Moving clumsily, with poor coordination[1]

After reading this list you may be as struck as I was about how little these “symptoms” differ from the behavior we encounter in “normal” people … and that we may even display ourselves.  I take this as a principal clue that we may not be dealing with a medical problem but with something of a different order altogether.  You may agree.  I have some thoughts about it I would like to share.

The hypothesis as question

Please be advised: what I am about to say is pure conjecture.  And because there is no data to back it up (or to refute it, for that matter) I will use a technique I have seen employed by some writers when they were moving into unchartered waters, and that is to present their ideas in a series of rhetorical questions that cleverly lay the responsibility for accepting the new daring thought at the feet of the reader.  Whether it actually works that way or not, the format should at least serve as a constant reminder of the hypothetical nature of the exercise.

If this is acceptable I would like to open with the following question:  Is it possible that what has been identified as Asperger’s Syndrome — an autism spectrum disorder — is really nothing more (or less) than the early and entirely subconscious internalization of the primary values and interpersonal dynamics implied in traditional western “christian” culture?   Corollary to this hypothesis, and contrary to the assumption of a physiological defect responsible for the lack of empathy, could the onset of the “disorder” have been due rather to an extremely — perhaps even overly — sensitive psychic radar, where a linguistically adept young child, newly emerging from the warmth of infancy, subliminally picks up “messages” sent by the social environment that encourage a disregard for feelings, both one’s own and those of others, and a preoccupation with the control of “things” in the service of one’s own accumulative interests?  It is significant that, unlike classic autism, the AS variant does not manifest itself in infancy with the signs of the familiar form of the disease: repetitive rocking motions, inability to speak, lack of interest in contact with others.  Classic autistic disorder is specifically distinguished from AS by manifesting itself quite clearly in the first 3 years of life, indicating a defect in the brain’s normal development of communication skills like the ability to speak coherently.  Asperger’s, in contrast, occurs without any signs of learning or language disabilities, and therefore cannot be diagnosed until that phase of childhood development is verified.  Hence it is usually identified later on in childhood, and in most cases not until school age or even later.

Some more questions: Could there be a correlation between these “symptoms” and the presence of these very attitudes (disregard for feelings … a focus on things, etc.) as priority values in our society and culture, or is their simultaneity merely a coincidence?  In this regard I would like to clarify that I am not suggesting that the child consciously absorbs these attitudes as values that would require thought and understanding.  It is my conjecture, rather, that something similar to the mechanism that is functioning in early language learning with its  highly complex grammatical elements, well before the use of reason, might also be functioning in the subconscious absorption of the psychic attitudes for social interaction.  Furthermore, wouldn’t something learned so early and pre-reflectively tend to manifest itself later as so intrinsic to the personality — not unlike language — that it would appear as almost organic?  No one remembers how or when s/he learned that third person singular subjects always require that the corresponding verbs end in “s” and that other forms do not, but by three or four years old the normal child says “I love you, mommy” and “daddy loves you, mommy” without hesitation or error … and applies the “rule” inerrantly to verb after verb, even those s/he has never heard before.  Would it not be logical to assume that the early developmental energies focused on the absorption of social tools so absolutely necessary for the survival of the organism, would be functioning across the board and that the suppression of feelings, absence of empathy, selfish obsession, and fixation on control of the physical environment, might actually be an example of a learning that is absorbed from others and imprinted on the psyche like language itself?  Isn’t it more consistent to assume that if these energies are functioning normally in language learning — the specific AS marker — that they would also be functioning normally in the appropriation of other social skills, rather than assume that this process breaks down or is being resisted only for these non-linguistic social issues?

Is it possible, in other words, that the source of the problem is not a defect of the human organism, but rather of the culture into which the organism is inserted and assimilated?  Is Asperger’s Syndrome a symptom of an uncivilized society?

Enter “christianity”

In presenting the hypothesis I made specific mention of “christian” culture.  What does “christianity” have to do with it?  Am I just grinding my axe?  Allow me to explain.

It was christianity that gave definitive shape to our culture.  For almost two thousand years the west operated on the assumption that what the Roman Catholic Church and its reformed offshoots taught about the nature of “God,” the world, the individual “soul” and its destiny was literal factual truth.  The western christian religion was not just a cluster of rites and ceremonies but a complete world-view — a way of life based on a comprehensive description of universal reality.  It was a story about reward or punishment in another world after death, administered by a demanding and watchful “God,” based on behavioral compliance during life.  The social dynamic was exclusively focused on individual “souls” who achieved their destiny by obeying the moral “law.”  Please observe: the central assumption of this christian story was the primacy of the individual.  “Salvation” was not a communitarian enterprise.  No amount of obedience on the part of one individual or group had any effect on the salvation of any other individual except perhaps by example.  All were on their own.  Whatever community existed (like the church) was focused on training the individual to “think about his/her eternal destiny” and “not to worry about anyone else.”

I would like you, dear reader, to stop for a moment, and think about that … christianity was a continent-wide belief system that remained unchanged for the better part of two millennia.

It makes me think about my “unchurched” friend “Charlie,” whose mother was a committed “born-again” christian.  Recently, in response to my questions about her feelings toward him, Charlie told me that “she simply doesn’t care … because she believes that we are all on our own before God.  She believes even my damnation will be for the glory of God.”  I was incredulous, but Charlie insisted.  Clearly his mother had adjusted her feelings to reality as she saw it.  There was no compassion much less anguish, and she was at peace with the world.

This was not a matter of moral failure, just the opposite.  It was just the way things were.  Nothing a mother or father could do, besides teaching and setting an example, could “save” their children.  No amount of committed love among brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends, relatives, neighbors, clans, villages, … even churches, would have any but an extrinsic effect on whether one of their number ended up in heaven or hell.  Salvation was not a community endeavor.  Does this sound familiar?  It pervades the culture.

One had to learn that little twist, because starting in  infancy the natural instinct of the human body is to reach out and cling … identify and feel safe in the bosom of the protective loving family, and in turn to protect the family, clan, community, that was the source of one’s survival and well-being.  In my own case, my spontaneous projection … that I feel safe because I belong to others and they belong to me, the organismic foundation of human community of every kind … no longer worked when it came to my eternal “life” with “God” and my “true community,” the Church.  I had to learn, and learn well, and as early as possible, that in spite of my spontaneous feelings, “God” and my family were really strangers to me … that we really cannot count on one another or trust one another … that life is not what it seems, that I am on my own … .  It’s an attitude that pervades the culture.

Wouldn’t it seem obvious that to the degree that a “christian” family had internalized those values that their attitudes and behavior even in areas that were morally neutral would embody and reflect them?  It is hardly imaginable that a normally functioning sensitive child would not pick up those “vibes” and begin to imitate and internalize adult attitudes — ways of feeling — long before the arrival of a reflective consciousness that could ratify emotional habits that were already in place.  I ask emphatically: how is it even possible that the child would not absorb these things?

At this point, someone may object:  If, as you claim, these patterns are in conformity with what you are calling “high priority values” in society, why would they ever be identified as a problem?  If your hypothesis is correct, how could such behavior ever come to be considered a pathology?   Why is it not considered absolutely normal or even desirable?

That might seem logical, and in fact some parents are quite happy to see that their children are,  what they like to call “competitive.”  But, I would respond to the objection by saying that it is obvious that the patterns in question (lack of empathy, suppression of feelings, obsessive fixation on one’s own interests, etc.) are in fact dysfunctional for social interchange.  Society depends upon empathy, compassion, etc., and does not expect that the self-interested motivation associated with “saving one’s soul” would generate this level of sociopathology.  And at the conscious reflective level it need not.  But why not?  For those who have not absorbed this social currency at the pre-reflective level of infancy — i.e., those who do not have AS — it is not a problem, for their organismic spontaneities are functioning normally despite their moral obligations as consciously understood.  They do not consciously countenance selfishness, despite the self-interest grounded by the doctrine of individual salvation.  Isn’t “love” itself a christian commandment?  But we must realize: the “syndrome” I’m speaking about is not a conscious reflective reaction.  It is a pre-reflective psychosomatic childhood absorption, just like language … and like language it cannot explain itself nor correct itself for it has no theoretical basis for judging itself.  It is absorbed whole cloth and appears to all observers, including the “patient,” as intrinsic to the organism.  It is, insofar as there is such a thing, the psychological bottom line — the core of the onion.  Doesn’t this conjure up the blackest of nightmares: physiologically healthy human beings of impeccable moral compliance who are incapable of compassion?

Does the christian “command” to love resolve the paradox?  Not at all; it reinforces it.  Please note:  there is an insurmountable incompatibility between the spontaneity of love and an “act of love” elicited out of the self-interest of gaining reward.   Wouldn’t it have been unlikely for an omniscient “God” to issue such a command as a condition for eternal life in another world, knowing that compliance would be skewed — motivated by the desire for gain, or more crassly, to avoid punishment?  Doesn’t the expectation that one will behave in a loving manner only for one’s own benefit after death require a schizoid self-division and the subordination of altruism to self-interest?  If this is true, is it any surprise that the super-sensitive pre-reflective child would pick up those subliminal feelings by osmosis and long before the cere­bral double-think, which allows adults to sustain two mutually incompatible emotional postures, entered the picture?  Once in place, isn’t it plausible that early rooted patterns — not unlike language — would later in life resist change, much as for many trying to learn a new language as adults is like hitting a brick wall?  Could it be that it is this mechanism of the pre-reflective absorption of emotional attitudes directed toward self-interest … attitudes which are later camouflaged in adults because they are made operative in intentionally benevolent behavior (obeying the “command” to love) … that accounts for both AS as well as the identification of those attitudes as pathological?

Has traditional christianity, in focusing exclusively on behavioral compliance (and if “reward and punishment” is the motivation, what other kind of compliance can there be?), unwittingly encouraged an emotional configuration that in fact is the foundation of psychopathic and sociopathic personalities?  Has the christian insistence on the rectification of behavior ignored the issue of the rectification of perceptions, attitudes and emotions?  Have we “cleaned the outside of the cup and left the inside full of greed and self-indulgence”?

Doesn’t this suggest that the transhistorical christian harnessing of the moral code to reward and punishment necessarily entails an obsession with self, produced and sustained by the very structural foundations of the culture — its sacred bases?  Couldn’t such a culture be legitimately called schizoid because it involves a split in the personality goals and emotional self-projec­tions of the individual?  Doesn’t this not only rob the individual of an emotional integrity to which his/her organism is naturally inclined, but also set up obstacles to future reintegration that are so impassible that only the uniquely dedicated can be expected to persevere and overcome them?  Doesn’t this contradictory use of anti-social motivations to drive social life … inevitably resulting in social and individual self-destruc­tion … merit the label uncivilized? 

Now what … ?

So many questions.  I guess the ultimate question is:  now what?  … what does it all mean … and where do we go from here?  How do we become “civilized,” or in this case what amounts to the same thing, how do we reverse Asperger’s Syndrome?  It is interesting that the medical authorities, in the absence of any known physiological or chemical cures, suggest “behavioral and cognitive therapies.”  That is stunning.  Do you realize what that means?  “Behavioral therapy” means the application of “rewards and punishments” to elicit changed behavior.  How delicious an irony is that?

This tells me two things: one, that whether AS is a disease or a collective spiritual myopia, the remedy is the same, so my conjectures were not so daring and dangerous after all.  And two, we’re back to rewards and punishments which can only change behavior.  What about our feelings?  Will they never be healed?  Perhaps by “acting as if,” they will, over time; it’s the basic premise of behavioral therapy.  But the very notion of reward and punishment as it will have to function in this therapy, if it’s not to continue producing the same baleful effects, has to be taken as metaphor: for the “reward” must be understood as “becoming whole again” and the punishment “remaining internally divided.”  There really is no literal reward for there is nothing to “get” … nor is there anything to “get” from what we “get.”  The goals are entirely internal.  There aren’t any “things” to lose by failing … to the contrary, oddly it is victory that usually involves losing things … because it means “letting go” of the false self-enhancements of accumulation.

Empathy, in other words, the very power to love resident in our bodies of flesh, is its own reward — like any work of art.  To re-learn empathy is to rediscover and recover our bodies our selves — it is, in fact, to be “saved” in the only “salvation” there is.  The reward is to finally become what we are: the mirrors — the sons and daughters — of LIGHT/LIFE reflected, reproduced in our bodies our selves … as lovers … us loving us … not me saving myself.