Transcendent Materialism: notes on terminology, methodology, physics and metaphysics

These are unconnected notes. They are the written-out versions of spontaneous reflective probings. Some were anticipated in my 2010 book The Mystery of Matter. They are not meant to be definitive, thorough or systematically consistent with one another. I wanted to float some new ideas past discerning and critical readers who might possibly be stimulated by the exploratory nature of these ruminations to contribute some thoughts of their own. The ultimate intent is to generate a plausible world­view that will integrate science and the human needs that until relatively recently had been met by a religion that is increasingly considered rationally discredited. 

6,400 words

matter

Transcendent Materialism, it should be emphasized at the outset, is materialism. The word “transcendent” qualifies matter; it does not imply bypassing, going beyond or adding anything internally or externally to matter. That matter is “transcendent” means simply that matter has, as an intrinsic property, the potential to exist in ever new forms through internal reconfigurations accomplished autonomously and serially in time. In effect, the term announces the central role of evolution in establishing the character of reality, and it asserts that whatever form matter assumes, it will still be all and only matter.

That means reality is homogeneous. Transcendent Materialism is a monism. It proposes that there is no other “substance” anywhere. Reality ― all of reality ― is comprised of only one “kind of thing,” matter. Matter and existence are one and the same thing. Anything that exists ― anything and everything, cause or effect ― is made of matter.

That needs to be said clearly because word “matter” comes to us with heavy historical baggage: for almost two thousand years it was universally used in the West in a dualist metaphysical worldview as the counterpart to a “second substance” called “spirit.” Because of that background, many people assume that matter refers only to its former truncated role in that binary system ― as the dead, passive, inert, unconscious, composed and mutable partner to spirit. Spirit, the “second” substance, was believed to be alive, unchanging, simple, uncomposed and either actively rational as a mind or, as an idea/essence, the product of a mind, therefore inherently teleological. Spirit implied rationality and gave purpose to a directionless matter.

Transcendent Materialism holds there is no such “second substance;” there is no spirit. Whatever qualities, dimensions, abilities, properties, energies, and destiny there are in the universe that were once explained as the products of “spirit” are, in fact, functions of matter. Mind, once assumed to be itself spirit and the generator of ideas with purpose, is a product and derivative of matter. Hence, the erstwhile a priori claim that purpose characterizes all of reality even the forms in which matter existed before the evolutionary emergence of mind, can no longer be sustained. The existence of purpose in any phenomenon, or the totality of phenomena, must be proven and its provenance explained. Until proven otherwise, it is assumed that matter has no purpose beyond being-here as itself.

Because of that and in order to avoid falling back into dualist assumptions, it would be better to use a term other than “matter” altogether. I have chosen to refer to the single substance that comprises reality as “matter’s energy” or “material energy.” Those terms are consistent with the most recent discoveries of physics. They not only reflect the current state of scientific thinking, but the inclusion of the term “energy” immediately precludes assuming the passivity, inertness and unconsciousness associated with the term “matter.”

Saying it that way, however, is not meant to add any property to the most primitive forms of matter that, in fact, are not observable. It is only meant to prevent the exclusion of a potential whose presence is suggested by the later emergence of transcendent features. Besides, the observability available at any given point in time is not an absolute determinant of presence, as the instruments that enhance the reach of perception continue to expand. Future observers may actually “see” what is now only conjectured. The only point is to deny the traditional assumptions that prejudice matter’s energy.

But the word “matter” is shorter and simpler. Therefore I often use “matter” without qualification; but unless it is clearly indicated that it is the old dualist version that is meant, it should be understood as “material energy.”

However, matter is, in fact, all and only energy. It is misleading to say “matter and energy are convertible” as if they were two distinct things. That phrase rather refers to two phenomenal forms in which energy appears to our sensory apparatus. Everything in the universe is some form of energy. The denseness and impassibility we are accustomed to associate with the word “matter” is a misleading inheritance from pre-scientific times that skews the imagery and devalues the use of the word. There is a temptation stemming from our idealist-dualist past to conflate energy with “spirit” and give “matter” the meaning it had in that pre-scientific system. This is entirely wrong. Energy is nothing but material and is appropriately classified as matter.   “Matter’s energy” and “material energy” add modifiers that are necessary to prevent matter and energy from sliding back into our age-old substance dualism.

 

existence

Since matter is all there is, it equates to existence. Existence is self-explanatory. That means, among other things, that there is no outside explanation for existence. We all know what existence means because, being matter, we exist. We know it “from the inside” as it were. Unfortunately the only way we can articulate our understanding conceptually is to contrast being with non-being, as if each were a “thing” or a state. But they have conceptual reality only.

There is no such thing as “non-being.” Explanations that have recourse to “non-being,” “nothing,” “nothingness” etc., as part of their apparent cogency are metaphorical and illustrative only. They effectively reveal existence to be a self-explanatory self-grounded dynamism not needing any further explanation. Traditional propositions used in metaphysics as points of departure like “Why is there something rather than nothing,” are meaningless except as illustrations. For the question assumes that we have an authentic knowledge of some aboriginal primordial “state” or condition called “nothing,” against which existence reveals its supersedence derivatively. That is utterly absurd. Logically speaking “nothing” cannot be known because there is nothing to know. Nothing does not exist. Non-being is a fabricated concept derived from being, not the other way around. The use of the idea of non-being derives from and emphasizes the supreme importance of being-here for us, and helps us to realize what existence is. We know existence directly and without need of any further explanation or justification. We cannot define existence in terms other than itself, and we cannot justify our claim to know it. This is ground zero.

But we have to be careful. The words existence, being and even being here are abstractions ― generalizations of our experience of real existing things. The words are not pictures of any “thing.” This denies the ancient and mediaeval conviction that being is an entity called “God” based on the Platonic belief that “ideas” or concepts were stand-alone substantial realities. The various forms of material energy that are-here (all the things and forces it comprises in the real world) actually exist. But existence is not something apart from the concrescences (knots) of material energy ― things ― that are present-in-the-world. Existence is a conceptual generalization that gathers and represents all the concrete experiences we have of actually existing things. The generalization is only as accurate as the concrete experiences it gathers. Non-being, or nothing, however, is even further removed from reality because it is not a generalization of anything. There is no “nothing” anywhere. It is a pure conceptual fantasy generated out of our immediate perception of the positive energy of matter: matter is an energy to be-here materially which we know and understand connaturally.

If something exists, it is material, and matter, for its part, bears the energy of existence as an intrinsic property and does not require the presence of anything other than itself in order to exist. Matter, in other words, is not a “principle of being” as it is in Aristotle’s system, requiring the presence of “form” (essence/idea/spirit) as a second principle in order to achieve reality. Existence is simply material energy; and matter is existential energy.  It’s clear with these premises that the reason, source and explanation of existence must be found within existence itself, and that source and explanation must itself be material energy. Matter, therefore, in some way that still remains to be fully explored and articulated, must be said to be the source of its own existence. Whatever “God” there is ― defining “God” as the source, ground and reason for the universe ― is constituted of material energy.

Prescinding from the form that matter may have assumed at any point in its trajectory through time, it has to be said that because the reason for matter is to be found within itself, matter always existed and will always exist. Since the only way that existence is, is material, and since all matter exists in time, we will therefore speak of matter/existence as being endless … but not eternal. Endless is the form that material existence takes in time; eternal, meaning something that simply exists without reference to time, is meaningless. It is an empty conceptual abstraction with no empirical ground; it is an idea that draws its static unchanging character from the nature of the human process of conceptualization, not from reality.  I use the word being-here instead of being for the same reason. Being-here connotes our active, time-governed presence-in-the-material-world, whereas being as it has come to us from the obsolete dualist worldview, imagines that our ideas of reality ― the products of human mental processes ― are themselves eternal unchangeable realities that stand on their own and add essential notes of information about the universe that would not be available otherwise. I contend this is fantasy; it is the reification of our imaginings. Being, like being-here, if it continues to be used, can only be a generalization ― a word / concept that attempts to depict the common element in all the experiences we have of things that actually are-here insofar as they are matter’s energy being-here, creating space and time. The same is true mutatis mutandi of all concepts. They are generalizations of the content of individual experiences.

 

time

That matter is endless is a corollary of its intrinsic temporality. No matter exists outside of time and there is no time where there is no matter, i.e., where nothing exists. Where there is existence there is time because existence is only matter’s energy. Physicists lately have been trying to explain time as a function of entropy. There is nothing wrong with that, except it is not the ultimate explanation. They are thinking physically and not metaphysically. Physics begins with the given universe already being-here and explains its phenomena in terms of cause and effect within what is already given ― physical phenomena are internally self-consistent. Physics does not question existence itself. Entropy is a correlate of time, and so time can be explained as a function of entropy. But because they are exact correlates, entropy can also be explained as a function of time. Physicists choose the former because time for them is a mental concept, while entropy is a physical phenomenon and that gives it a causal priority over time. Cosmo-ontologists (materialist metaphysicians), in contrast, because of their focus on existential energy (being-here) as the ground and explanation of all things, are able to discern the material existential character of time. Time is precisely the intrinsic condition of matter’s being-here because matter’s energy is a material presence-that-moves-beyond-itself-and-perdures-materially and time is the way we material humans experience that perdurance. It is the primordial manifestation of matter’s transcendence and the ground of evolution. Matter moves beyond its current configuration but it always remains matter. Time is the very way that matter is-here. To-be-here, in other words, is to be in a material process of existential conquest ― it is to exist, develop and perdure by expanding materially: i.e., proceeding forward from being-here in this particular configuration moving into where it is not and re-configuring itself in the process. Evolutionary process is not something that happens to matter’s energy as if from the outside or ex post factum. The very energy of matter’s presence is a forward motion into existentially unconquered territory ― being displacing non-being now ― moment after moment after moment.

Let me offer a metaphorical picture to explain what I mean. Think of matter, which is existence, as if it were a spotlight. Where there is matter there is existence or light, where there is no matter there is nothingness or darkness. Matter’s existential energy lights up darkness only in this “spot” we call now; it makes something to be-here where there was no “here.” To be here is what it is because it energetically overcomes and displaces not-being-here. Its energy is expansive: it moves into the darkness where it was not.

(I emphasize the metaphorical nature of this fantasy. It is not a “picture” of reality; it is offered only to illustrate the dynamism involved. There is no such thing as “non-being” or “nothingness;” and being-here is not a light. They are conceptual/verbal concoctions ― fantasy. What is real is the physical nature of existence: being-here is a material phenomenon, a time-creating self-transcending energy that is a property of matter, present, operative and observable only in the actual forms, individual and collective, that matter has assumed.)

Perhaps a better illustration is the very expansion of the universe itself, which is quite real. We have a hard time imagining the reality occurring here, because we tend to imagine “space” as pre-existing the things that fill it so we think of the universe of material energy expanding into empty space. That is not what’s happening at all. The reality is that “space” is a function of matter’s conquest of what-is-not-there; space is created (out of “nothing”) by the expansion. What do things look like at the very edge of the expansion of the universe where the things that are-here meet what-is-not-here? Do you have a hard time imagining that? So do I. We can’t imagine it because we cannot think non-being. We know there has to be such a “place,” though there is no “place” until the event ― being-here as an active conquest ― occurs now. In that ethereal “location” ― now ― where being-here creates “space,” you can intuit that it is also creating time. Well, that is precisely what’s happening everywhere, moment after moment. Both space and time are the continuous products of transcendent material energy insisting on being-here moment after moment and creating space and time as material by-products.

The “arrow of time” goes in only one direction. That is not difficult to understand for cosmo-ontology where the point of view is being-here and being-here can only continue to be-here by moving into some “place” where it was not (creating space-time as it does so). It must move from the ground it has conquered and holds as presence, onto new ground where nothing has been present before. That can only be one direction ― from this now to a now that has never been, from a “place” where it exists into what-is-no-place. Once the question is framed in terms of existence, regardless of the inability to imagine it, the thought of being-here moving to some place where it has already been is absurd. It’s very dynamism is creative: it is to move to where it was not, to overcome “non-being,” to expand, to create “space.”

It is a conundrum for physics because physics takes existence, presence, as given. All its explorations occur after that definitive conquest. That’s why it misses the forward energy of time. There is nothing in physical reality that demands that time’s arrow must only go forward. Hence physicists try to explain time’s direction and look for a physical cause. Cosmo-ontologists (materialist meta­­physicians), on the other hand, who recognize matter’s existential energy as the fundamental material dynamism giving rise to our experience of time, are not surprised to observe that matter’s energy produces a one-directional trail pushing being into non-being, and in no other way.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine material energy, being-here, and the metaphysics that describe it as a train in motion. The train is time moving in one direction because matter is driven to be-here moment after moment. Then, imagine the physical forms that matter’s energy has assumed and the physics that studies them as passengers or cargo on that train. The train is going in only one direction, but the passengers are free to move forward and backward. Physics, since it does not study the motion of the train itself (matter insofar as it creates space-time), sees the train as a static environment. Physicists can only observe and measure the motion of the entities in it (which are observed moving forward relative to the ground). They can clearly imagine the possibility of items moving toward the rear of the train, and the forward motion remains a mystery or is attributed to time’s correlate, entropy, because they do not look at being-here as a physical dynamism, they take it for granted. Entropy is conjectured as a cause when actually it is an effect of time’s direction.  Entropy measures and describes sequence in terms of the irreversible dissipation of energy between existing material things, whereas time is the human experience of the sequential motion created by matter’s energy existence ― expanding its presence.

An added confirmation of this way of looking at time is that is supports and helps explain the theory of the relativity of spacetime as proposed by Einstein.  Material energy, in the form that it has assumed in any particular place in the universe, is concrete and specific and our experience of its existential process (“moving” from being into non-being) is empirically generated.  We call it time.  Time is a human experience produced by a physical event.  Time is not an innate idea, an eternal background reality, or an a priori form of sensibility.  Both space and time are concretely engendered by this specific matter which we experience differently from other matter.  There is no anticipated simultaneity or pre-existing reality for either space or time, time is relative.

 

energy and entropy

All energy is a function of disequilibrium. The achievement of total equilibrium equates to the complete absence of energy. Matter’s existential energy is generated by the gradient difference between being-here-now and the nothingness it must confront and vanquish if its particular concrescence ― knot ― of material energy (this “thing”) is to continue to be-here in the following moments. Existential disequilibrium is created when the positive expansiveness of matter’s energy meets what-is-not-here; equilibrium is restored when matter’s existential energy pours itself into it, as it were, as into an empty receptacle, filling it full of existence, replacing non-being with being. (Please be aware of the metaphorical nature of that description. There is no “pouring” or “filling.”) Equilibrium is achieved in the triumphantly existent now and the energy of matter momentarily disappears in a point of existential repose (now) only to be immediately regenerated in the next moment by the disequilibrium created by the looming precipice of nothingness into which matter now peers.

Entropy is a concept proper to thermodynamics that attempts to observe, describe and measure the dissipation of energy which accompanies the reduction of disequilibrium. The energy of existence itself has never been the focus of entropic analysis and interpretation because being-here in the Platonic paradigm of “spirit/idea” was thought of as a metaphysical reality but not a physical function. Understanding being-here as a physical function proper to matter transforms metaphysics from an analysis and interpretation of ideas into cosmo-ontology, the “prequel,” the missing first chapter in the narrative of physics. It provides a wider context for the interpretation of physical concepts like entropy allowing them to be seen in a new light that reveals relationships that had perhaps been missed or unavoidably inverted. Our analysis of time was one example of that inversion affecting entropy that was due precisely to the failure to understand existence itself as a material (physical) energy.

Cosmo-ontology (the metaphysics of existence-as-matter) predicts that the ever increasing entropy created by the dissipation of energy in the universe can never reach 100% because even in a state of “heat death” predicted by the theoretical physicists ― where every possible form of disequilibrium has been eliminated ― there will still be the existential energy of endless matter superseding “non-being” and creating space-time. The measurable energy of the universe may “flat line” but the timeline of inactive matter will continue endlessly, confirming the prediction of the first law of thermodynamics that matter’s energy is neither created nor destroyed.

 

 metaphysics

Metaphysics (I offer “cosmo-ontology” as a new label for this discipline) begins with being-here as that particular aspect of all phenomena that is especially significant to human beings. And it is significant not only because we humans ― like all living organisms ― are selfishly driven to stay alive and therefore obsessive about being-here, but because we are uniquely convinced of the utter gratuity of it all. None of it has to be here. How do we know that? Frankly we have no idea how we know that. All we know is that we do, and we express our intuitive conviction by asking a question that for all its irrationality we all find compelling: “why is there something rather than nothing”? It never spontaneously occurs to us that being-here has to be-here … that there is no such thing as nothing and there never was … and that nothing will never ever exist, while matter’s energy must exist endlessly.

There is a profound circularity operating here. Since matter’s energy must be-here, and since the human organism, including its sensory and neurological systems responsible for its conscious intelligence, is entirely made of matter’s energy, it should come as no surprise that every aspect of the human organism is determined ― absolutely driven ― by the forward energy of being-here. We ARE, like all matter, the energy of being-here pushing its spotlight into the darkness of non-being. The fact that we know there is no such thing as “non-being” doesn’t stop us from speaking in those terms because they somehow express exactly our groundless connatural intuition into the positive, abundant and expansive character of being-here. When all the dross and symbolic forms of expression are burned off, we are left with this: human conscious intelligence intuits the positive character of being-here and cannot explain why it is absolutely convinced of it. It will always remain a marvel to us that there is something rather than nothing. I believe that this insuperable circularity is simply the predictable outcome of our own materiality. We ourselves are constructed of matter’s existential energy. Our being-here is not something added to our persons, something we have and can lose (which is the way we normally think). Being here materially is what we ARE. We have always been here and will always be here although not in the current human form or with the “self” we now enjoy. We are constructed of matter ― the very energy to be-here which has to be-here. It is not possible for any part of our organism not to reverberate with being-here as a connatural phenomenon wherever we encounter it, in ourselves or in any other form that material energy has taken … including the totality.

Metaphysics (cosmo-ontology), seen in this light, is the exploration of the implications of our material identity, and the possibilities and consequences of its denial. Since we humans are matter’s existential energy with a unique capability for self-embrace ― a conscious self-appropriation that goes far beyond what we see in other forms of living organisms on earth ― understanding accurately what being-here means for us is of paramount importance. It is not an optional pursuit, or entertaining exercise where the results are unimportant in comparison to the delight of the inquiry. How we understand what we are doing here, based on first understanding what being-here really is, will determine our destiny as a species, and perhaps even the destiny of all the other living species who emerged from the earth with us. Metaphysics, in this scheme of things, is not a dispassionate inquiry. It is a highly charged self-interested pursuit of the truth about being-here. Acknowledging our inescapably subjective investment in this science suggests that something similar is probably functioning beneath the surface of claimed objectivity in every science and pursuit of humankind. We are made of matter’s existential energy and being here is not only what we do, it is what we are.

There are some who will point to this subjective investment as a liability. They say it skews the inquiry fatally by placing an irresistible existential pressure on the students of the question to find answers that satisfy human aspirations and quell human fears.

Humans are able to question the meaning of being-here precisely because, alone among all other forms of living matter that have emerged from the earth, humans know they will die. Being-here, besides being the source of constant preoccupation, also becomes an intellectual obsession. The joyful pursuit of securing the means necessary for being-here is fatally enervated by the know­ledge that ultimately it is all for naught. The instinct to embrace what we are with gratitude, joy and generous creativity is not only potentially crippled by the awareness of death, but it can come to be seen as an unnecessarily cruel deception casting a pall of despair and bitterness over life. We tend to attribute social pathology and our interminable slaughter of one another to this flaw in the human species … and indeed, some in their hopelessness, have declared human life a pointless burden and respond with a selfishness that increases everyone’s suffering confirming the attribution.

But there is no necessary connection between the subjective instinct to be-here and distortion of the truth. It is just as possible that the desire to embrace life with joy will drive an inquiry past the dangerous shallows created by death and into deeper regions where navigation is open and endless. I believe that the intense motivation that may drive the metaphysician can be a source of dedication to honest and careful thinking, thorough inquiry and the disciplined exploration of implications.

Because cosmo-ontology is a materialist metaphysics it will work closely with physics which also deals exclusively with matter. But the focus on existence is what distinguishes the two and necessitates metaphysics. The claim of some logical positivists that science alone, especially physics, is sufficient for establishing origins, and that metaphysics is an exercise in fantasy is wrong, because physics does not question existence. Taking existence for granted is myopic to an extreme degree for the enquiring human being who is necessarily and uncontrollably interested in being-here. Both tools, science and philosophy, are needed to complete this pursuit. And indeed in the system offered here, the final identification of matter with the very energy of existence itself, is determinative in establishing a clear direction for human endeavor and aspiration that differs markedly from earlier directions that have been deemed failures and abandoned. A global humankind, cast adrift from its various traditional moorings by a science that was unavoidably less than holistic, is well served by a discipline that plumbs the significance of being-here as science has observed and measured it. Science provides the data, philosophy, specifically metaphysics, questions the data looking for an existential interpretation significant for humankind. And it does so because the question of existence, far from being irrelevant, corresponds to the most insistent instincts in the human species ― that derive from what we are: matter’s living, existential energy.

  

conatus

Conatus denotes the embedded instinct for self-preservation that is the observed characteristic of every known living animal organism on the face of the earth, and is projected onto plants and fungi as well. Because it is characteristic of every form of living matter regardless of diversity, difference in complexity and location on the timeline of evolutionary emergence, it is reasonably retropolated to also characterize non-living matter and, in my scheme of things, would explain the undeniable evidence of transcendent emergence before the dawn of observable life. It is another, and almost predictable expression of matter’s energy to be-here. It would hardly seem reasonable to claim what I do about the “nature” of material energy as an existential conquest and expansion if something akin to the conatus did not exist in proportionate measure in all of matter’s energy commensurate with the degree of evolutionary complexity it enjoyed. The fact that it is such a prominent, undeniable and universal feature of the biological organisms that have emerged from the earth, confirms the existential characterization of matter that I have been offering in these ruminations.

As a side note, the universality of the conatus has not stimulated an enquiry into its significance because science, even the biological sciences where the uniformity of the conatus in all the millions of species studied is the elephant in the room, do not relate to existence. So the relevance of the conatus was missed altogether. I believe this is a clear confirmation of the distinction between metaphysics and the sciences, especially physics. Existence is bracketed by the limited focus of scientific knowledge and the understanding of what it means to be here for which we all hunger is simply ignored. It is another item on the list that demands a holistic integration of the disciplines that study our world.

Once the biological conatus is plausibly considered as existing in proportionate degrees in all the forms of matter even those prior to the emergence of life, it is reasonable to suggest that the progressive integration and complexification of material energy clearly on display in the elegant table of the elements and the accumulating development of complex molecules are evidence of a proto-evolu­tion that is a precursor of the behavior of biological life. Thus I feel it is appropriate to speak of matter as a living energy at all levels of its development, with the caveat, of course that this characterization be understood analogically, i.e., proportionate to the level of autonomy achieved by evolution and accurately observed and measured by science. Use of the term living is not meant to offer any additional information to what science provides about the behavior of the various forms of inanimate matter. The sole purpose for employing this counter-intuitive description is to establish a presumption for the presence of a potentiality present in minimally perceptible form ― perhaps only at the quantum level ― and could easily be missed by the scientist who was prejudicially convinced of its impossibility. Just knowing that matter is a living dynamism opens the observer to the possibility of actually seeing evidence of it.

 

thought

We humans interface with the rest of the material universe through self-conscious thought. Thinking refers to the practice of making mental pictures of our presence-in-the-world in order to facilitate our survival as biological organisms. It is a function of the conatus ― a direct derivative of our instinct for self-preservation. Accuracy of thought is important if we are to survive, and so we attempt to include as much detail and fidelity to time, process and interaction among entities as possible. Thought or thinking is the process of making pictures, and the pro­ducts ― thoughts ― fall into various categories depending on content, origination and their applicability to the survival interests of the organism. The two principal categories in my system are knowledge and understanding.

Knowledge in my lexicon refers to a thought product that is a picture derived from an experience that at the conscious level does not relate directly and proximately to the needs of the conatus. Knowledge is characterized by an affectivity that has been called “objective” or disinterested, even though in most cases it is not. The organism may be subconsciously aware that the objects of thought in these cases have an impact on the “self” but it operates in background mode and the conscious sense is that the organism is simply “looking at what’s there.” These “cerebral” or “rational” mental pictures comprise the bulk of the thought process, and they are quite intentionally cultivated by the sciences that condition the validity their conclusions on the objectivity of knowledge.

I use understanding in contrast to knowledge to denote a thought product that is a mental picture that originated with the activation of the conatus. It is often called subjective, instinctive, reactive and self-interested. With understanding, the somatic dimension is front and center. This results in an awareness that includes the destiny of the self to one degree or another, a mental state consciously aware of the profound survival connection between the self and the object of thought and awareness. I call this resulting mental state a realization because the object of thought is seen to be existentially relevant i.e., it has a direct bearing the knower’s own being-here and it brings an affective sense of conviction that is particularly intense.Knowing” the force of gravity is one thing, seeing a tree fall on your car pushing the roof to the floorboards gives you a new “understanding” that makes you “realize” what gravity “really” is.

Understanding, like all thought, regardless of the intensity of self-interest involved is totally dependent on observation, and observation is totally dependent on the sensory and neurological apparatus of the biological human organism. The ability, therefore, to form mental pictures of one’s presence-in-the-world, whatever qualities it may generate that appear to transcend materiality, is grounded in the matter of the human body. All concepts ― human pictures of reality ― are totally derived from and dependent upon matter. The ability to imagine something that is not there, or to conclude, for whatever reason, that some entity ― even myself ― might become other than it appears at a given point in time does not constitute a transcendence over matter. The same is true of the generalizations that we call concepts. They are all a work of the imagination. Imagination does not go beyond the ability to isolate and reconfigure the elements of empirical phenomena pictured in space and/or time for the purposes of staying alive. It is as sensory and material an operation as any that humans perform.

No matter how intense the realization, and despite its accompanying sense of conviction, all human thought is a work of the imagination. Concepts are representations of material phenomena couched in the sensory images of experience in order to facilitate our interaction-in-time with the universe of matter. There is nothing infallible or eternal about them. Even the sense impressions, immediate as they were once thought to be, in fact operate integrally in the self-interested, self-preserving dynamism of thought and are vulnerable to the re-arrang­ing which constitutes it. In fact it is difficult to achieve a detachment of the sense impressions from the self-interested thrust of human thought without the use of outside tools, like laboratory procedures and double-blind studies, specifically designed to suppress that influence and achieve accuracy.

In every instance what is occurring is a material interaction and survival is its ultimate focus.

 

self-appropriation

Self embrace is the goal and destiny of human life. This apparently solipsist conclusion corresponds to the tautological circularity that our enquiry has uncovered in our universe made of living matter. Material energy which is the constituent reality of all things bears ultimate reference to itself alone. Matter’s existential energy, exists only to exist; it is-here only to be-here. It doesn’t exist in order to become something else, go somewhere else or do something that it is not currently doing or, or that it could not, in the near or distant future, evolve out of its own components. Things are-here for only one reason: to be-here. Everything we have examined confirms this conclusion. Matter’s energy is totally focused on its own abundant expansion into all the “places” it is not. Matter’s existential energy is the living embodiment of creativity: the conquest of non-being by being. It is not an energy that matter has, it is an energy that matter is. To be-here is to be matter; to be matter is to be the energy of expansive, overabundant, endlessly conquering existence.

We’ve seen how this plays itself out in area after area of our inquiry: the irrepressible conatus, the creation of an ever expanding space-time, the evolution of pre-living forms of matter, biological evolution, human reflexive consciousness as a function of being-here featuring the inability to think or imagine or want anything but being-here, the insuppressible perception that being-here, besides being the ultimate desideratum of the human organism, is a positive, gratuitous, and altogether marvelous phenomenon, and appropriately considered the object of wonder and gratitude. The instances are multiple and consistent in this regard. When we understand the transcendence of matter, we realize what we are. In human terms that translates into creative generosity.

We could take a moral turn at this point and, using Buddhist and Christian models of personal growth and maturity, try to show how the inversion of values triggered by an incorrect interpretation of the urgings of the conatus accounts for the classic spiritual pathologies, individual and social, on which both traditions concur. Specifically, the almost unavoidable deflection of the energy of the conatus from the survival and enhancement of the totality of matter in the universe to the selfish aggrandizement and pleasuring of the individual human organism in isolation has been identified as the paradigm of “the corrupt human condition” ― selfishness. Similarly, we could show how the goals and even the practices of personal transformation in each tradition which are designed to counter selfishness are in general agreement with one another and correlate closely with the supreme value of existence-in-the-present-moment as the concrete form in which being here authentically occurs, and whose embrace simultaneously establishes a relationship of oneness with the entire universe of living matter. Oneness with the totality, the mystics’ quest, is achieved by appropriating (realizing) one’s physical / metaphysical homogeneity with all things. We are all made of the same clay. The result is a clear vision of the supreme achievement for the individual-in-community of a loving and grateful understanding of one’s “self” as a highly evolved version of matter’s energy bearing universal matter’s fundamental dynamism of expanding abundance forward into where-it-was-not. The agenda of the “self” is not ultimately for the “self” alone or even for the “self” to decide; the decision and the purpose has already been set: it is the agenda of matter’s living expanding energy. It is a realization that the human generosity exemplified and inspired by matter’s energy is not merely an optional, gratuitous and personally satisfying choice of life-style, but is the necessary emanation of the human organism’s very own constituent structure. Expansive abundance ― transcendence ― is the very nature of matter’s living energy at every level of evolutionary emergence; and as material organisms extruded by a material universe it is our nature as well.

JOY

3,200 words

Both Buddha and Jesus offer their followers a life of sustained joy ― Buddhists through constant ascetical practice, and Christians through faith in Jesus’ message and the witness of his life and death. Where does the joy come from? I contend that in both cases it comes simply from being alive ― being-here as you are. Neither adds anything to life as it is..

Joy is the natural state of all living things. This is also true of human beings. Look at the infant. Except when it’s hungry or lacking something it needs, it lives in a state of spontaneous and unmitigated joy ― unsuspicious, unthinking, unmotivated, unselfconscious, unyearning, un-nostalgic, imageless, aimless, care-less, joy. How is that possible? Because the infant wants what it has and has what it wants. What does it have besides being alive? Nothing. What more does it want? Nothing. Its joy comes exclusively from being here exactly as it is.

What about mother’s love? It’s taken for granted. Mom is no big surprise . . . She did not implant the joy, it was already there, she simply became part of it … just another strand in the seamless cloth of the joy of being alive. The infant lives in total joy because it is totally identified with its life; it fully embraces what it is. It has no idea it is a separate and helpless “self.” It loves its life. It has no regrets or nostalgia for the past, it has no hopes or fears for the future. It has no thoughts or images. It wants nothing else but being-here, and it has what it wants.[1]

The “absorption” or “immersion” that Buddhists often speak of, refers to the ultimate result claimed for meditation, arrived at only after years of continuous practice, but adumbrated much sooner, where the practitioner’s cognitive and affective self-appropriation begins to resemble the simple, all-inclusive self-embrace of the infant. The joy experienced does not come from somewhere else or someone or something outside, like “God” or some other “lover,” or from some accretion added in the course of life, like wealth or possessions or children or the recognition of the community, nor does it come from any secure hold on the continuation of life after death because even for those who believe in such a thing, it is a future hope, not a present possession. Joy comes from only one source: being alive as oneself.[2] It recapitulates the joy of the infant who has what she wants and wants what she has. Those that do not arrive at such a point of balanced stillness may not be suffering, but they do not experience joy.

Seen from this perspective, the difficulties and discoveries encountered in the process of living add obstacles to the infant’s simple self-appropriation and self-apprecia­tion. Those obstacles come in the form of deceptions that generate and distort our desires, deflecting them from wanting what we have and having what we want towards ersatz “outside” goals that do not satisfy human hunger. The Buddha claims that what we want is LIFE, and that we already have it. His program, then, is a negative, subtractive one: it is a “letting go” designed to eradicate the deceptions, empty desires and false goals ― all “other” than what we are ― that prevent us from resting in the LIFE that we have and are.

The “self”

One of the principal deceptions to which Buddha directs his corrective program is the “self.” He claims that what we call the “self” is a figment of our imagination, a fiction concocted to assign roles and responsibilities within society. We tend to think of the self as a real, separate, stand-alone entity. It is the feeling of certainty about the substantial reality of the self that lends credibility to the projection that we live on after death.

But for Buddha there is no such thing as an independent self. In fact, he says, everything that we identify as the constitutive elements of our self is the product of a myriad of causes that are not in any way our selves. My very body, for example, was not produced or designed by me, I did not determine my genetic components, my gender, intelligence, strength, size, appearance, much less the later basic psychological formations stamped on me by childhood experiences with these parents and these siblings. I did not choose the language I would speak, the cultural beliefs that I would embrace as undebatable truth, my religion, the amount and quality of education I would receive. Everywhere I look, as I meditate deeply on what has gone into making me to be me, I find that all those constitutive factors were not me. I “arose” from a multitude of “non-self” causes that conspired to produce what I call my “self.”

Modern science adds background to this panoply of “non-self” influences. The most important one is time. The evolutionary origins of living things means that the human organism was the slow and painstaking product of eons of development spearheaded by ancestors that we would hardly recognize as human, who were in turn the inheritors of even more ancient forebears who definitely were not. We are all descended from primitive progenitors who bequeathed these spectacular evolutionary achieve­ments to all of us. What are we but the ultimate leaves on a massive ancient tree of life that has been growing since the beginning of time.

The Buddha said that the “establishment” of mindfulness of the body ― by which he meant, the full and sustained realization of everything that went into making my body ― would lead to the awareness of “no-self.” “No-self” means that the belief that the self is a stand-alone “thing,” separate, independent, and distinct from other “things,” comes to be understood and felt deeply to be a fiction. The long range effect is the clear-eyed perception of my self as the product of virtually the totality of the evolving material universe which I have heretofore erroneously thought of as “not myself.” It is confirmed by the scientific identification of all existing things in our universe as being comprised of the very same material energy in each and every instance. Everything is made of the same clay. Nothing is only “itself.”

Buddha’s exercises are designed to reduce the insistent demands of the false “self” for aggrandizement and satisfaction of desires all of which become obstacles for wanting what I have and seeing that I already have what I want. For it is the very decision to comply with those false demands that creates and sustains the inflated sense of self. The self as a separate stand-alone entity is conjured into existence by chasing the wind, and chasing the wind keeps the inflated self visible like a hologram ― a surreal projected image of what is not really there. Its voracious and insatiable appetite is created and sustained by “feeding the tiger blood” ― attempting to satisfy the cravings of what is only the product of our imagination.  And I know they’re imaginary because when I stop feeding them they go away.

Institutional Christianity and Jesus’ message of joy

Traditional institutional Christianity as we have inherited it at least since the time of its Roman Imperial iteration, claims that Christian joy is the result of faith in the promises of an afterlife of bliss, the reward of a life lived in compliance with the commandments of “God” as identified and codified by “God’s” exclusive agent on earth, the Christian Church. It warns us that happiness is not possible in this valley of tears; it is not natural for us to be happy. Thinking otherwise is delusional and dangerous. Secure happiness only comes after death and is a gift of God, earned for us by the death of Christ paying for our sins. It says Original Sin passed on to us a human nature that is irremediably corrupt and distorted. It is responsible for the bodily cravings that incline us to disobey the commandments. These urges can be contained and controlled through the infusions of a quasi-substance called “grace,” from the accumulation of Christ’s earnings, that is delivered through the sacraments, which are rituals regularly performed in the Church precincts by an elite corps of males and attended by believing Christians. Participation in those rituals is a requirement, for they are the exclusive vehicle for the “grace” needed to control desires and avoid sin. Dying in sin means punishment for all eternity in excruciating torment. Hence belonging to the Church is not optional. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

That description stands in stark contrast with the message of Jesus, whom the Church likes to claim it follows. But I contend that for Jesus and those who follow his counsels, joy is not created by rewards from God or by the assurance of continuous existence after death. The consolations of faith as Jesus taught it have to do with the awareness of being loved by a compassionate, generous and forgiving “Father,” and the self-appreciation that that evokes, not from any sense that life will go on forever. Jesus’ message had great magnetism. Following Jesus meant learning, credibly and palpably, who you were by being presented with the living dynamism of God’s loving-kindness in Jesus’ words and comportment. He embodied that love, as the Buddha embodied compassion, and in each case the messenger became a central piece of the message ― the “religion” ― that emerged from their work. People were transformed in their presence, and the change in their attitudes and behavior made them happy ― “blessed” ― as described in the beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12). What the message announced was not a new product or a new contract or a way out of dying, but a new and definitive appreciation of yourself. “Forgiveness,” the leitmotiv of Jesus’ message, gave you back yourself.

Both these teachers, I contend, were focused on the same phenomenon: a joyful, loving self-embrace that implicitly included the whole universe. You came to love yourself for what you were: what we describe scientifically today as the extrusion of cosmic evolution. The Buddha pursued it systematically. He carefully analyzed, classified, and prioritized the psychological dynamics that worked in his own case and then presented it in detail to those who followed him. Meditation and mindfulness were the key because Buddha saw that by controlling the mental images that drifted unconsciously through our minds, we could shape and direct what we thought about ourselves and ultimately the actions we took to protect and advance ourselves. “As irrigators lead water to their fields, as archers aim their arrows, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their lives.” (Dhammapada, 10: 145).

Controlling the mind was the key to controlling the way we lived. Thinking the right thoughts meant realizing that the self is the sustained product of the whole evolving universe and that protecting and advancing your self meant protecting and advancing the totality. Thus was born the selfless compassion and universal love that characterizes the Buddhist vision.  Once you realize that your self is the offspring of whole universe, you stop living for yourself and your embrace expands to include everything and everybody. You begin to understand that your selfishness was the result of deception not malice, and that the selfishness of others must be understood the same way.

In Jesus’ case, his blinding insight into the warmth and forgiving generosity of Yahweh, his “father,” dominated his imagination. Jewish people who were intimately familiar with the same psalms and prophets that had inspired Jesus resonated with his message. They knew exactly what he was talking about because since the return from the exile, Yahweh’s forgiveness and compassion had displaced Judaism’s earlier focus on power and punishment in their contract with their God. Having failed to keep the commandments was now understood to be met with forgiveness, not punishment.

In Jesus’ scheme of things, as is clear in the narratives and letters of the New Testament, this transformation was believed to occur instantaneously. It was called metanoia, in Greek, a “change of mind” usually translated “conversion” or sometimes “repentance.” Jesus himself had such an experience at the start of his mission. It is produced by being overwhelmed by the sense of invulnerable self-worth implicit in the message of the fatherly love of “God.” Once, as the Christmas carol says, “the soul knew its worth,” a global change in attitude and behavior occurred automatically. The Christian convert experienced a self-acceptance and concurrent joy that was often described as “being born again.” The moral compliance, compassion and generosity toward others, and the enthusiasm to work for justice and peace that followed could hardly be called obedience.

The Buddha, clearly, while he did not rule it out, did not expect any such instantaneous transformation. His message amounted to the systematization of the process of learning to rethink who you were (and who others were), using moral and socially cooperative behavior as a tool for identifying correct imagery about yourself and re-training your mind to embrace it. The Dharma, the “natural law” provided the content for meditation, like an image to be copied, and the practice of constantly being aware of and controlling the images that drifted through your mind was the work of a lifetime. Whether you sat for long periods silently meditating about conforming to the Dharma, or understanding “no-self,” or undoing the judgmental “knots” in your mind about yourself and others tied by the false belief that you were an independent and separate “self” amassing and accumulating “stuff” for an illusory endless living, you were constantly occupied with re-training your mind to see itself as an integral part of a larger whole and identify yourself with others. “As archers aim their arrows, the wise aim their restless thoughts, hard to aim, hard to restrain.” (Dhamma­pada 3: 33)

At some point the practitioners’ behavior and attitude begin to conspicuously resemble the Dharma on which they meditate, generating the beginnings of a deep self-respect and self-appreciation ― a forgiveness of yourself and others. Then, meditative concentration becomes more sustained and intense over time until the practitioners become totally absorbed in the objects of their contemplation and mental striving, which, because of the focus on “no-self” tends toward “non-duality:” i.e., that there is no distinction between the self and the non-self and there develops a sense of immersion in the totality of being. It’s then that the joyful, self-oblivious self-embrace of infancy begins to re-emerge. The distinction between oneself, others and the rest of reality blurs, becomes irrelevant and tends to disappear.

The remarkable Meister Eckhart

Efforts of Christians to find a way to sustain the transformations of conversion, led to experiments in systematization that were not unlike the Buddhists’ and generated similar insights. The following passages come from a Christian mediaeval mystic and theologian, Johannes Eckhart, called “Meister.” They are from a sermon designated #52 and entitled “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit …” a reference to one of the beatitudes of Mt 5. It was written in the vernacular German in the fourteenth century, most likely in the decade after 1310.

Eckhart’s theology relied on Neo-Platonic philosophy to a degree that was not true of his scholastic contemporaries. Neo-Platonism held to the pre-existence of the “soul” before birth, which Eckhart understands to be an ocean of undifferentiated being where the “soul” is immersed, indistinguishably, with all things and “God.” Eckhart uses that theory as an explanatory backdrop for his mystical teaching about “blessedness” (which we should remember means “happiness”). But what is important to me is not the speculative metaphysical explanation, but the description of the lived experience. The similarity to the notions explored in this essay is easily discernible. (All quotation marks are from Eckhart himself). He is trying to explain how “poverty of spirit” equates to blessedness:

… so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.

When I stood in my first cause, I had no “God,” and then I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing for I was an empty being and the only truth in which I rejoiced was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted and so I stood empty of God and everything. But when I received my created being, then I had a “God,” for before there were any creatures, God was not “God,” but he was what he was.[3]

. . . so therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of “God” and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel, and the fly, and the soul are equal ― there where I was established, where I wanted what I was and was what I wanted. So I say, if a man is to become poor in his will he must want and desire as little as he wanted and desired when he did not exist. And in this way, a man is poor who wants nothing.

. . .   [Blessedness] does not consist in either knowing or loving; but there is something in the soul from which knowing and loving flow that does not know or love … Whoever knows this knows in what blessedness consists. That something has neither before nor after, and is not waiting for anything that is to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. … it is itself the very thing that rejoices in itself as God does in himself. … The authorities say that God is a being and a rational one., and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things.

. . . In the breaking-through, when I come to be free of my will and of God’s will and of God himself, then I am above all created things and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain now and eternally … in this breaking-through I discover that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and then I neither diminish nor increase … with this poverty man achieves what he has been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find. [4]

 

[1] I am tempted to include here my belief that the wellspring of this stillness, this complete contentment with just being-here, is that matter’s living energy is existence itself, the ultimate eternal reality, the stasis beyond all change, the final equilibrium. Matter’s living energy is being: there is no “nothing” that preceded it from which it came. Nothing preceded it; there is no such “thing” as “nothing.” Being is first, only, everywhere and always. This will be elaborated at another time.

[2] This is corroborated by the poverty which is enjoined on Christian and Buddhist aspirants alike. Likewise, one of the goals of all mystical traditions, declared explicitly by the Sufis, is to achieve a love of “God” that is totally detached from any desire for heaven or fear of hell.

[3] The comment of Bernard McGinn, the translator and editor, on this particular phrase is that it is an allusion to Ex 3:14, “I am what I am,” which modern exegetes agree was a way of emphasizing the unknowability of God.

[4] Colledge and McGinn tr. Meister Eckhart, Paulist Press, 1981, pp. 199-201