The Big Picture (5)

A review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

5

Relationship to the living source of LIFE and existence is what I mean by religion and I claim that austere as they are, the conclusions of this essay can provide a foundation for a religious view that is compatible with science and with the pyscho-social needs of the human individual. Furthermore, these conclusions can be reconciled with the basic teachings of all of our traditional religions — especially their mystical side — once they have been purged of literalist scientific pretensions and claims for direct revelation from “God.” In other words I believe the conclusions of this analysis can serve as a universal philosophical ground, finally pro­viding a solid basis for a unified understanding of the universe that reductionists like Carroll have discarded as an unnecessary addition to the physical sciences.

The religious ground envisioned by this approach differs from the traditional religions of the West which were all founded on the belief in the existence of an individual humanoid transcendent “God”-entity. While they all include a “minority report” that envisions an immanent “God,” the dominant belief system, called “theism,” imagines “God” as a human being, much smarter and more powerful than we are, who stands over against the rest of creation as an individual “person,” immortal, all-powerful, and not constrained by the limitations of time and space. “He” is like a male head of household who wants a specifically ordered behavior from humankind encoded in rules that must be obeyed. This “spirit” God will reward or punish each individual human being after death in the spirit world where he is thought to reside and where the human being will spend eternity.

In sharp contrast, the real LIFE in which we are immersed in this material universe — the only world there is — is not an individual entity. LIFE exists everywhere as a pervasive force that is fully operative simultaneously in all things, immanent in and indistinguishable from their own respective existential realities and proportionately actuated according to the level of material complexity achieved by evolution. It appears to be an emanation of the energy of material existence itself because its primary manifestation, the conatus, is exclusively focused on physical survival. As such it is responsible for the continued evolution of material forms which appear always to move anti-entropically in the direction of greater aggregation of parts and integration of complexity conditioned on the ability to exist in this material universe.

LIFE is completely immanent in the material universe; it is not distinct from the things that are alive. It is only a posteriori, in evolution, that LIFE displays its peculiar transcendence: each and every achievement of evolution has been transcended — over and over again — always plundering the entropy against which it pushes in the direction of greater depth and intensity of existential participation. Evolution has populated at least one planet with an astonishing array of living organisms of every kind imaginable and every degree of complexity filling every environmental niche where survival is possible, all made exclusively of the same material substrate, elaborated from primitive one-proton hydrogen atoms that constitute the gas clouds, stars, galaxies, black holes and other massive structures of the cosmos. The astonishing, exclusively upward anti-entropic display of ever more complex and intensely interior organisms occurring over so many billions of years and achieving such stunning results suggests that LIFE will always continue to reach out toward ever more comprehensive control of existence, horizontally establishing an ever wider beachhead of survival and vertically toward a more intense penetration into the interiority of existence, the material source of its energies.

Reductionists maintain that it is a fallacy to claim that there is an “upward” trend in evolution because they say evolution is not an “active” phenomenon — a response to learning from the environment — but rather a “passive” result emerging from random mutations that do not respond to environmental pressure. I have argued with them on that score in section 2, citing work by biologists who say genetic adaptation actually occurs at rates that are far too high for the classic theory based on random mutation to hold. Accor­ding to these scientists it appears that some learning from the environment must somehow be penetrating genomic insularity and creating genetic changes that are not random.

From the long-range perspective of cosmic history, however, the undeniable fact of the general correlation of evolutionary complexity with time, i.e., that increasingly complex and conscious organisms have emerged in the direction of time-flow, is evidence of a presumptive adaptational causality. The massive accumulation of an infinity of phenotypes all growing in complexity and consciousness as a function of time (i.e., evolution never regresses despite potential survival advantage), evokes a pro-active adaptability not explained by random mutations: evolution goes exactly as far as the currently achieved organic complexity and the environmental context will allow.  It minimally suggests an internally directed intentionality analogous to a non-rational “Will.” It is the task of scientists to identify the mechanisms that may be involved in this, but even without that help, philosophers still have to acknowledge the facts.

*

We ourselves, living material organisms of the human species, are direct inheritors and full participants in this cosmic drama. We are all and only living matter, made of the same quarks and gluons, muons and neutrinos held together by the strong force that constitute everything else in the universe … a universe so unimaginably vast and full of matter’s living energy that it jams our mental circuits. With our mysterious and marvellous intelligence we are the most penetrating of the living organisms that our material universe has evolved to date. Our interiority gives us a privileged window on the dynamism of LIFE itself for we ourselves are not only fully alive, but we can see, feel, taste, hear LIFE directly in itself because we activate it autonomously, as our very own identity, each of us, at every moment of our lives. We not only have LIFE, we are LIFE, and we understand it connaturally, intimately, as the inheritors of its powers and the victims of its yearning. We feel in the marrow of our bones the emptiness — the insatiable thirst for LIFE and existence that embodies our longing — a thirst in which we live and move and have our being. We own LIFE as ours. But LIFE is not some “thing”; it is a hunger and desire for LIFE as if we did not have it at all. We are LIFE’s “Will-to-be-here” willing ourselves to be-here … feeling the creative power of our emptiness, nailed always to the cross of our entropic wellspring: living matter.

Religion is our collective human attempt to relate to LIFE, which means to relate to what we are and simultaneously yearn for. The conatus/entropy incongruity is the heart of the human condition. The treasure we carry in vessels of clay is ourselves willing ourselves to be-here even as we drift toward an inevitable death. Religion as relationship to the LIFE-force itself involves embracing ourselves in a most profound way — a way that includes the mortality of all living things because the LIFE we share is the same.   We ourselves are the doorway to our encounter with LIFE. How do we do that? Who will guide us? For millennia we tried to relate to a “God” that pulled us aside at death one by one for judgment and punishment. Now, who will teach us how to rest in a colossal living embrace that makes us family with every other yearning thing in the universe? Instead of being held up for ridicule as guilty individuals we have been “willed” into existence as a cherished part of a cosmic totality. Our cuture has not prepared us for this.

Religion is a natural, spontaneous reaction of humankind born of the irrepressible conatus along with the sense of the sacred and the awareness of the contradiction of death that it immediately engenders. The conatus and its sense of the sacred originate in matter’s living energy and are a foundational instinct, unmediated and underived, that can be ignored but not suppressed. They appear on the planet with the emergence of humanity itself. Because of the primordial nature of this instinct it took concrete social form — religion — from the earliest moment and has evolved through the millennia molting its outward practices in tandem with the historical context, but always driven by a spontaneous and unsuppressible urge. The conatus is sufficient and necessary to explain it. The religious instinct in and of itself does not imply the personal theist “God” of the West; and indeed not only in the east but peppered across the globe, the instinct has resulted in all kinds of religious structures with “gods” that were often indistinguishable from the powers of nature represented by animals or geologic and cosmic forces personified. They are metaphors that all point toward material LIFE as it really exists; even Christianity’s emphasis on the cross points to the central contradiction: a conatus feeding on the energy of an entropic matter — LIFE springing from death.

*

How do we relate to this discovery? I turn for guidance to the great mystics — the people throughout the world who have sought personal contact with religion’s Source. Even though they come from traditions with vastly different images of the LIFE-source, the mystics agree to a remarkable degree on what relationship to it looks like. Their descriptions, as I read them, confirm for me that the relationship to “God” or Brahman or Tao of which they spoke in their time and within their cultural context conformed to what one would expect if the literal object of their gratitude and love were matter’s living energy as I am proposing, rather than an individual spirit/person entity or other transcendent “divine” presence.

For consider:

  1. The mystics all agree that that encounter with [LIFE][1] is indisinguishable from an encounter with oneself. [LIFE] and the living human organism are one and the same thing.
  2. In all cases any imagined life in another world is conceived as having begun and being fully present here in this life to such a degree that the future aspirations become a subset, if not superfluous. They become more important as symbols of the encounter with [LIFE] here and now.
  3. Mystics share a universal conviction that [LIFE] is not a separate entity/person but an energy resident in all living things that has no will of its own aside from the endless will to live and to live endlessly in the living individual organisms. [LIFE] and the totality it enlivens are one and the same thing even as each individual living organism activates LIFE as its own and autonomously, and the LIFE force goes on to transcend current forms and evolve ever new ones.
  4. They all say that the core of relationship to [LIFE] is detachment from an ersatz “self” created by a false importance assigned to the individual conatus mistakenly thought to be independent, permanent and self-subsistent. They encourage, instead, the identification with a universal “Self” — a totality that includes not only all living things, but also everything that exists. It is the totality to which the “self” belongs and to which its conatus should be subordinated.
  5. They concur that while rational behavior is essential to being human, it does not provide the permanence that the conatus seeks. Paradoxically, moral achievement, like other forms of individual success, insofar as they are pursued for self-enhancement, are to be the object of detachment — a letting-go that allows the LIFE of the totality to assume the control of the human individual and direct behavior.
  6. They all counsel a relationship to [LIFE] that does not presume interpersonal humanoid reciprocity. They are acutely aware of the fact that [LIFE] is not an individual entity, like a human person, because it is not the energy of a material organism. [LIFE] is the existential energy of all things activated in ways proportionate to the complexity and interiority of the organism. Therefore, the great mystics all tend to encourage relational practices to [LIFE] that transcend “conversational” — one-to-one — communication. They avoid traditional religious “petition” for a miraculous intervention to alter reality for the benefit of certain individuals so characteristic of Western Christianity.
  7. They universally counsel love for all things. [LIFE] and the totality that [LIFE] enlivens are in a sense more real and more substantial than any individual.

The mystics in all cases point to a spare and indistinct conceptual structure at the foundation of their experience. As a primary exercise they are all, including western mystics, vigorously focused on the deconstruction of the literalist imagery of their respective religions. They consistently discourage the pursuit of and attachment to anything like visions, consolations, or feelings interpreted as interpersonal “contact,” emphasizing instead trust in the solidity of the LIFE we actuate. They describe the object of their quest — LIFE — as the unspoken background that increasingly becomes the object of our peripheral awareness. They are quite clear that the heights of religious experience for them have occurred when they were simply being themselves, living with the background awareness of their immersion in LIFE. They speak of a sense of contact that is not conceptually clear, but is an “unknowing” … and that the object of this awareness is more like no-thing than something.

Through exercises focused on mental attention the mystics train themselves to transform the connatural sense of emptiness and yearning into an awareness of their immersion in LIFE — possessing and being possessed by LIFE — resulting in a deep and abiding peace.

 

 [1] Brackets are used to indicate that what I am calling LIFE was called by other names by the various mystics, according to their tradition: “God,” Brahman, Tao, etc.

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.

 

The Limits of Knowledge (4)

being-here and emptiness (ll)

How can existence in any form, even partial, be existentially empty? If our analysis of presenceas-process is correct in saying that the fundamen­tal dynamism of reality is change and becoming, and that change and becoming are in function of filling a need, then we find ourselves with an internal contradiction. Emptiness is nothing. As such it cannot be an explanation of the dynamism of presence.

If existence were simply static and at rest with itself, we would seem to have no problem. But since existence displays itself as an endless becoming fo­cused on being-here, “dragging” being-here into existence from moment to moment as if it were not here at all, we face a prob­lem whose solution seems beyond the reach of our concepts. For as we perceive it, existence acts as if it lacked the very thing that it is. Lack of “being” can only mean non-being, “nothing.” But, nothing, as we saw, is an absurd notion, because there is no such thing as “nothing.” Nothing does not exist and therefore cannot be known.

Existence, then, appears to be internally contradictory because by always moving to maintain itself it reveals an absence of self-possession. What is this absence? The circle of presence does not contain its explanation within itself. Where do we go from here? Beyond that circle, outside of being-here, human knowledge cannot function. For, outside of existence, there is no­thing.

Haven’t we gotten ourselves into this dead-end? After rejecting the validity of the traditional concept of “nothingness,” haven’t we simply resurrected it in another form, in a new guise, calling it emptiness? For what can emptiness “be” but another word for “no­thingness?”

“emptiness” is metaphor

The impasse stated in this form is only apparent, and it arises from taking emptiness to be a “factual” or literal concept referring to “something” which can only mean “nothing.” But emptiness is not nothingness because emptiness is not a concept, it is, as we’ve said all along, a metaphor. As metaphor, it does not answer, it rather preserves intact the significance of the question.

If we take emptiness as a literal concept and set “presence” and “emptiness” face-to-face, we discover that they cancel each other out; they cannot co-exist in the same mental construction. We cannot ask the question “how can presence be empty?” If “empty” is taken as a literal conventional concept, the question “how can presence be empty” is the same as asking “how can being be non-being.” That contradiction means that we have no way of understanding reality. And I believe it’s because we have confined our understanding of reality to what is mediated by conventional “literal” concepts and the so-called knowledge they produce. In the case we are considering that confinement is fatal. For “nothing” is a false concept, no matter what terms are used to describe it. It does not refer to anything at all.

Once we realize we are not using emptiness as a conventional concept, however, there is no inconsistency. Emptiness is a metaphor utilized to relate us to the living dynamism of reality — reality’s quest to remain itself. We have called it repeatedly, a self-embrace, and following Spino­za, conatus. Bergson called it the vital impulse, Schopenhauer called it will. In each case we are using an analogous human experience as a metaphor to describe this dynamism. We claimed we were justified in doing so because of the homogeneity of material reality. Everything is made of the same “stuff,” matter’s energy, including us. Emptiness does not refer to nothingness, but to a dynamism for self-posses­sion, a self-embrace, which, when mediated exclusively by conceptual knowledge, is unintelligible. But, ironically, while we do not know what it is, when we approach it through our metaphors we realize that we do indeed understand it — intimately, thoroughly, profoundly, implicitly — because we experience it as the inner living dynamism of our very selves. There is nothing in the world more familiar. It is our drive to survive. That is the basis for the validity of the me­ta­phor.

It was otherwise with the traditional use of the abstract concept “nothingness,” as we saw in chapter 1 and rejected. In that case there was an invalid attempt to generate a “proof” for the “necessity” of “being” based on the logical analysis of the opposition between the concepts of “being,” taken literally, and ”nothingness,” also taken literally. “Why,” the traditional metaphysicians asked, “is there something rather than nothing.” You can’t ask that question, for there is no such thing as nothing.  Neither of those concepts — “being” or “nothingness” — was considered to be anything but reliable representations of reality as it really is. It was precisely the impossible “reality” imputed to “nothingness,” however, that gave us the first clue to the untenability of the entire procedure. The essentialists had reified the concept of “non-being” and then tried to make real inferences about the character of “being” from it.

Emptiness as we use it metaphorically, however, refers to an entirely different notion. Rationally speaking, the metaphor concretizes the question as a conceptual quest; it doesn’t presume to provide a rational answer. We are proposing to understand the significance of an existential dy­namic whose internal contradictions we cannot reconcile in conventio­nal rationalist terms. The metaphor “emptiness,” inspired by our bodily human experience and praeter-conceptual understanding of the phenomenon, de­scribes in poetic terms what we do not conceptually comprehend but what we nevertheless experience and therefore understand intimately. This is a far cry from the claim to define the transcendent significance of “being” from a rational analysis of “non-being.” Our use of the meta­phor “emptiness” immediately directs us to a recognition of the non-intelligi­bility of the concepts involved and from there to an acknowledged conceptual ignorance, even as it describes existence as we experience it with uncommon accuracy. Unlike the function of the concept “nothingness,” which supposedly leads us to “know,” emptiness (the metaphor) leads us to “not-know,” or should we say to “un-know.” Emptiness serves to put a human face on the baffling interior living dynamism of all reality which we ex­perience intimately as the very core of what we are. We understand it more clearly, more distinctly and more thoroughly than anything else in the world. And from there we understand all existence even though we do not know what it is

We realize that existence is empty for us because even though we have it, we still thirst for it — we know what that’s like; we wake up with it every day. But clearly it cannot be “known” in conventional conceptual terms, and therefore it cannot be controlled. We understand it, not because we conceptualize it or can identify its cause but because we expe­rience it. We realize how accurately it defines us. It is a clear conscious embrace, a cognitively transparent experience but not a rational conceptual comprehension. We understand it; but we do not know what it is.

out of the impasse?

Rather than generate hypotheses to fill the conceptual gap, I am perfectly content that the final statement to be made on this question is that we can go no further — conceptually. We have encountered what Lonergan might have called a matter of sheer unintelligible fact.[3] The traditional “solutions” to the encounter with this philosophic dead-end, advanced in the West, in my opinion, have taken one of two paths. In the first, science-orien­tated reductionists ignore the problem by simply taking the existential dynamism for granted. They assume the unexplained existence of the embrace of existence and its manifestations in the survival drive and confine their analyses to what has subsequently evolved from it. They do not ask, as we do, what it is.

In the second, philosophers of the perennial essentialist tradition simply dismiss scientific questions as “not ultimate.” They have no respect for mere presence, or “matters of fact.”[4] They claim the real question exists only at the level of abstract “being” (and “non-being”) and proceed to a “solution” by crediting our concepts and therefore the human mental apparatus with something they do not possess — a separate genus of being called “spirit.” These “solutionists” (like Rahner and Lonergan) erect our very demands for knowledge into “proofs.” Thus they continue the fundamental circularities that have characterized Western thought from the beginning. I believe we have no justification for saying that the demand of our minds for an explanation is itself an explanation. To my mind, this is to revisit the Platonic error and the Anselm­ian trap. We imagine reality based on the functions and products of our minds. To present human conceptual knowing (verbalized abstraction) in such a way that its description requires the implied existence of an unknown (and admittedly unknowable) object, is a huge projection.

Rahner says Thomas Aquinas agrees that human knowledge is locked into the limitations of sense experience. “Transcendence” by scholastic definition goes beyond those limits. So everyone agrees, including Thomas: transcendence cannot be known directly. Rahner’s Thomas, however, is made to go further and say that the projections of human consciousness, (i.e., the ability to abstract), imply an absolute principle “pre-appre­hen­ded” by the mind, that never becomes itself the direct object of knowledge but opens us to another “realm” of knowledge. This is not a problem for Rahner because he believes “supernatural revelation” begins where direct knowing ends. The “absence of the implied object,” in his system, plays a vital role in the transition to other “facts” in the form of revealed beliefs.[5]

My analysis is different. At the end of my reflections the discovery of the emptiness at the heart of being-here puts me at a dead-end. I believe this is true of Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Bergson as well. I am aware that the apparent contradiction we encounter in the way matter’s energy is-here leaves us at the edge of a void. We have reached the end of our earth-bound knowing. From a conceptual point of view, the rest is darkness. At that point Schopenhauer and Bergson each limit themselves to a description of that darkness — as “Will” or as “Vital impulse” — it’s where the buck stops. Rahner, for his part, turns to revelation. What I claim, is that the only thing left … if one has the temerity to go further … is relationship.

relationship to the darkness

In some way, then, that is not clear, we suspect that if there is an “explanation,” it lies in that darkness into which we peer but cannot see — what we feel and touch as our very selves, what we understand so intimately and see so clearly and certainly but about which we can say nothing. We have little choice but to accept this situation because, however galling it might be, we ourselves awaken into a condition of absolute immersion in that darkness. We understand it with absolute clarity; we know of its creative power with absolute certainty; and we rely on it for our very ex­istence itself. Matter’s energy, the embrace of existence, is a matter of sheer unexplained empirical fact. It is as incomprehensible as it is absolutely familiar, undeniable and self-evident. It is the very fire and light of our lives, but utter darkness to our minds. It is us … and yes indeed, we understand it.

What do I mean? If an immersion-relationship to being-here is the defining feature of our organisms, ourselves, we fail to embrace the reliability of existence with its endemic thirst and emptiness at the risk of denying our very selves and the conditions under which we and our ancestors have been here and have evolved to become what we are. We cannot do that. We cannot sit in judgment on the circle of existence, matter’s energy, as if we stood outside of it; for not only our faculty of analysis and judgment but our very existence itself is an evolved function of matter’s energy. The internal incomprehensibility of being-here is now seen to have invaded our persons. The emptiness, the hunger to live, which we encountered in the dynamism of existence, material energy’s self-em­brace, we now see resides at the core of our very selves and lights the fire of our conscious presence; for we are-here without escape (not even death can annihilate the material energy that we are) and our very consciousness is a tool of our inherited determination to survive. We accept it. To fail to do so implies personal self-negation.

But notice: upon realizing that our analysis of existence could not explain itself, we did not physically annihilate nor disappear. Of course not. The contradictions we encountered in our rational ruminations had no impact whatsoever on being-here. Existence clearly is not dependent on our conceptualizations; the significance of being-here and the selectivity of rational consciousness do not move in the same plane. There is a reason why we cannot make deductions about reality from our ideas alone … it’s because our understanding of reality is not a function of ideas. Our consciousness is grounded in somatic experience, the organic immersion in matter’s energy. It also supports our conclusion that the neo-Thomists’ “transcendent thrust of consciousness” tells us nothing. Conceptualization with the logic of its required “explanations,” in other words, does not correspond to the reality we have come to realize is process — energy, a living dynamism we’ve described as a congenital self-embrace. And what we’re interested in is what reality is, not how we conceptualize it.

 

[1] Cf Creative Evolution, 1907 passim
 [2] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, Everyman London, 1995 tr Berman.
 [3] For an extensive discussion of Lonergan’s “unintelligible fact,” see appendix 2.
[4] Cf. Rahner, Spirit in the World., pp.162 and 175. And Lonergan, Insight, p.652.
[5] For a more complete treatment of this position see the appendix.

The Limits of Knowledge (3)

being-here and emptiness (l)

The perdurance of existence in time is predicated on forging ever new relationships through combination, dissolution and re-combination — change and movement intended to satisfy what appears to be an inexplicable need for existence. What presence does is to tap its own potential for continued presence. Potential for existence can be said to be an emptiness of presence that seeks to be filled.

NOTE: “emptiness” ― I use the word as a metaphor for the conatus, or drive to survive. I characterize it as a “hunger” or a “thirst” for existence. It’s something we experience with varying degrees of intensity and “realization” throughout our lives. The term is central to the vision of Nagárjuna, a 2nd century (ce) Mahayana Buddhist for whom “emptiness” refers to the fact that we do not possess existence independently but are rather “empty” of existence because we are dependent on other causes for our being here. For the Thomist tradition, with its emphasis on the ontological dependency of all things on esse in se subsistens, the same meaning is broadened and deepened.

Hence its creativity. The thrust of its energies is always directed toward more secure ways of being-here. But, we have to ask, if existence is-here-now and is-here endlessly, how is it that the goal of its quest is still existence?

It is the very restless instability of being-here, it’s apparent radical inse­curity, its abhorrence for the entropy that is its destiny, that appears to be the source of the endless energy of its explorations. Existence is not reconciled to its fate. This characteristic of existence may have eluded identification when found in primitive, pre-life forms, but it reveals itself with indisputable clarity in living things. Life, as a manifestation of matter’s energy, proves that existence is a mad desire, disruptive, violent, implacable.[2] The creativity of being-here is not a serene contemplative appreciation or a leisured aesthetic browsing. It is a passionate craving, an existential fury that seems to have no end.

Matter’s energy is the locus of this insatiability. We say that because we see it functioning across the board. The frenzy of the oak tree to reach the sun, pathetic as it might appear, is not unfamiliar to us. We do the same in our own way as does every living thing that we know. The universality of the phenomenon of a generalized existential hunger that becomes growth, accumulation and self-aggrandizement, and I contend, evo­lu­tionary development, reveals to us the inherent qualities of matter’s energy of which we are all made. Understanding that the qualities of life are due to its sub-atomic constituents, explains why insatiability, and from there, dissatisfaction, desire, anguish, ob­ses­sion — suffering — is the lot of all organic life made from this universal, primordial clay. Humans are not exempt. Suffering, the sentient side of emptiness, cannot be ignored or assuaged. Any relief proves to be only temporary. It is endemic not only to life, but, we conclude, to matter’s energy itself. To be is to live; to live is to suffer the throes of surviving. To survive — to stay the same — is to change, evolve, develop, complexify. It is to create out of emptiness a world teeming with life.

Life reveals reality. Once given the extended range of possibilities offered by that particular re-arrangement of matter’s energy we call “life,” it appears that existence flies its true colors. Presence is passionately and ruthlessly self-involved. Our praise for nature’s exquisite balance cannot fail to recognize that this balance is achieved by an almost universal violent predation, as one species survives by heartlessly taking the life of another in order to incorporate its vital organic structures into its own. Predatory activity across the board is the basic tool of the natural system. In most cases it appears that evolutionary speciation — the very design of species — is a response to available prey, euphemistically called a “niche,” or a “food source.” Thus “nature” implants its blind lust for life, and seems impervious to the slaughter it engenders. On the one hand, this points up the unity and homogeneity of all material reality, for in fact one “entity” serves to support another. On the other, hunger, hardly a metaphor in this case, appears to direct the process. Naturally the metaphors we use are themselves human as is the apparatus and the model, which is ourselves. Emptiness, hunger, are words that refer to human feelings that correspond to need. I don’t apologize for this use of words. We can’t escape from the fact that we, too, are-here; we survive by violence and we understand ourselves intimately by an understanding that recognizes that what constitutes us is our implacable conatus.

We saw in chapter 3 that certain activities, like self-replication and aggregation, once considered the exclusive domain of living things have also been discovered in non-living entities. We go even further and say that the very physical dynamisms operating in inanimate energy’s relationships — gravitation, the strong and weak forces inside the atom, electromagnetism, chemical valences and molecular attraction — are actually constitutive elements of matter’s energy as it aggregates, forming bound relationships, the better to survive. Words like “life” and “survive” are metaphors for pre-life integration taken from a resemblance to living things and human experience. But I claim they represent something real in the most fundamental forms of matter. We have identified that energy as the conatus, the self-embrace of existence, a dynamism that uses similar strategies in response to an existential lack that characterizes all of matter’s energy.

Lack? I believe we have touched a raw nerve in the organism of universal reality, an existential scar of such proportion that we are justified in calling matter’s endless energy a function of emptiness. We understand the conatus as a wound of emptiness, because we understand ourselves.

east and west

While diverse cultures may agree on how to describe “emptiness,” they have interpreted it variously and responded to it in different ways. In the West, following the belief in the transcendent importance of the individual person, need is identified as an obstacle to a­chieve­ment, self-tran­scen­dence. “Need” becomes a challenge — something to be overcome. Emptiness, therefore, as an inherent and permanent defining factor integrates only as antagonist to “self-tran­scen­­­dence. ”

In the East, on the other hand, Buddhists have a different take. Emptiness, they say, is constitutive of reality. Denying it is fatal and can be considered symptomatic of the human problem. Denial implies succumbing to the illusion of the possible permanence of the experiencing “self” and thus intensifies suffering. Buddhists believe that the false understanding of what the “self” really is (ultimately based on a mis-interpreta­tion of what existence really is), encourages us to believe that we can somehow eliminate emptiness by engorging our “selves” with existence — meaning the accumulations that are falsely thought to protect us against ultimate loss. That naturally includes wealth and power, and in our times, life-protecting and life-extending technology. Religious practice as insurance for the after-life may be considered in this category. These accumulations promise to erase suffering, death, and ultimate­­ly permit us to live forever as our “selves” in another world.

The Buddhist view challenges these presuppositions. The hoarding, grasping selfishness created by the illusion that permanence can be achieved for the “self,” only intensifies suffering for ourselves and everyone around us. What the realization called “enligh­t­enment” does, they say, is to “awaken” us from the dream of permanence and to what is really real. From the point of view espoused in our reflections here, understanding reality to be matter’s energy permits us to recognize that the permanent self is an illusion, that the craving and desire for this permanence is an unavoidable natural deception born of the internal dynamism of matter’s energy, the emptiness which fuels the survival drive, that cannot be permanently satisfied. The implication is that we should understand emptiness as the ultimate definition of individuated reality. The appearance and increased complexification of the integrated function in the evolution of life is a direct product of the hun­gry emptiness that resides at the core of all reality, driving it to aggregate and integrate in order to avoid dissolution. Identity, then, which by reproduction creates species, is fundamentally an expression of existential need — emptiness.

The corollary to this Buddhist realization-awakening, one suspects, hovering in the background though officially unexpressed, is that what really exists and endures is the Whole of being-here taken as a Totality. It is the basis for the doctrine of anatman, the unreality of the “self.” What Buddhism claims to conquer is the aggravation of the cycle of suffering brought on by the mis-interpre­ta­­tion of what this “individual self” really is and therefore from the point of view of our reflections in this essay, what being-here, existence, with its endless conatus really is. We cannot escape suffering, they say, because we cannot escape from the emptiness and the consequent hunger for existence — the unreality ­— that resides at the core of things. Life ultimately cannot unseat death. Entropy wins.

Buddhism seems to suggest that to know reality is to understand the impermanence — the non-reality — of each and every feature and fact that emerges composed of matter’s energy taken individually and apart from the Whole. Each individual manifestation of presence suffers from the same vulnerability because, at root, it cannot escape the primordial emptiness of its existential building blocks. The conatus characterizes all the strategies of survival and development as we saw. We are all made of the same “clay,” and so, by ourselves, we all manifest the same characteristic impermanence that not only drives the communitarian strategy of matter’s energy but also explains the clinging, grasping self-involved insecurity that causes so much human suffering. The source of the energy at the base of the pyramid of reality is the emptiness inherent in any given separate manifestation of being-here. The conatus appears as if it were a reaction to an absence of existence. But how can this be?

 

[2] This approximates Schopenhauer’s proposal that being is “will.”