“It is what it is” (II)

There is nothing more there than what is there; but what is there is more than it appears

3,900 words

The previous post titled, “It is what it is,” ended with these sentences:

“Things are ‘just what they are.’ In one sense they never change because ‘they are only what’s there, …’ But in another sense, once we humans acknow­ledge our dependency on the forces that go into our makeup, the relationship of gratitude that we cast over all of reality like a cosmic net, driven by our innate conatus, transforms our world, physically, biologically, socially.

This is the transforming work of human moral power, not of some washed-up ancient war-god with an unsavory résumé trying to reinvent himself for modern times. Human moral power, and the unknown living wellspring that feeds it, is the only thing in our universe that transcends ‘dependent arising.’ This is where metaphysics begins.”

The fundamental argument of these essays is that human relationship has a transforming power over the material universe because by changing the human valence it significantly changes the environment in which material processes work themselves out. That is certainly meant to include everything on earth right up to human evolution, and, given the significance of the human presence within the totality of matter’s energy, ultimately, even if only eventually, the whole cosmic process.

Relationship means bearing. It is basically a noetic phenomenon because it draws its primary significance from human thought and has its greatest impact through attitude, feelings and intentionality which are all the by-products of thought. How I think of myself in connection with any other thing is the ground of how I act and react with regard to it.

Thought as a psychological phenomenon is a key notion in the Buddha’s program. It is the fulcrum around which turn the “four truths” that are often used as a short summary of his teaching. The four truths are:

First: the fact of universal suffering among human beings attests to the dissatisfaction we experience even when our demands are met. Humans are endemically unsatisfied.

Second: this dissatisfaction is born of the uncontrolled cravings that emanate from the unconscious thought stream of the human organism: thought evokes desire, uncontrolled desire creates dissatisfaction.

Third: craving can be controlled and eventually terminated by controlling thought. When cravings are terminated suffering will cease.

Fourth: the consistent practice of basic moral behavior, what Buddha called the “eightfold path” or dharma, made possible by thought-control, will bring justice and harmony to the human community and inner peace and happiness to each individual.

The central factor in both the arising of suffering and its cessation is thought, a general word that refers to the stream of images that run through our minds and the feelings of desire or aversion that are associated with them. The opening words of the Dhammapada, which is said to be the one of the earliest collections of the Buddha’s preaching and a concise distillation of his vision and program, make this point emphatically:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.[1]

It is from this central focus on thought that the Buddha’s emphasis on meditation — and from there the practice of mindfulness which is the continuation of the meditative posture throughout the day — becomes clear.

The control of thought is the practical tool for changing behavior. When we speak of thought in this sense we realize we are speaking of an unconscious process not unlike the instinctive behavior of animals who are obeying algorithms “selected” by evolution and hard-wired into the DNA that controls the neurological and hormonal systems of their organisms. The fact that this thought process is mental has deceived us in the West into believing that in the case of human beings it was a “spiritual” pro­cess and not material. But the Buddha recognized the reflex nature of human behavior, and the paradoxical unconsciousness that characterizes human mental processes. He saw that as the key to transforma­tion: make the unconscious mental processes conscious and you can change them. Since you are what you do and you do what you think, by changing what you think, eventually you can transform yourself. If you want to become a just, generous and compassionate human being start thinking just, generous and compassionate thoughts. If you want to stop being judgmental, self-centered and disdainful of others, stop judging, catch yourself when selfish and disparaging thoughts enter your head even when you are just daydreaming. That’s what Buddha meant by meditation: become conscious of what you are thinking, and think the thoughts you want and they will lead you to the behavior you want.

Now this is extraordinary despite its simplicity. It means that at some point along the line the hard-wired biochemical algorithms that over eons of geologic time were developed to predispose the biological organism to behavior that worked for survival became malleable to human will and intention. Humans, somehow, had developed the capacity to transcend the evolutionary programming of their own organism and change it in accord with their vision of what they want to be. But how can this be? How can a biological organism bypass and even reverse its own programming — which is the very source and basis of its material survival in a material world.

It is even more extraordinary because the Buddha identified the process as completely natural.   There was no recourse to gods or superhuman powers emanating from another world. He insisted that there was no “self” outside the organism — i.e., a “soul” separate from the body that functioned outside of the chain of the organism’s material causes.

By one’s self alone the evil is done, by one’s self one suffers; by one’s self evil is left undone, by one’s self one is purified. The pure and the impure stand and fall by themselves, no one can purify another.[2]

It was the very same human organism that disappears at death that enters the chain of causes before or beyond behavior and modifies it as behavior. The physical habituation created by repeated patterns of behavior following the urgings of embedded algorithms was not eliminated but rather incrementally modified — nudged — over a long period of time and effort, with the effect that a new physical habituation was slowly introduced in place of the old, but at no point was physical habituation erased or superseded­. The will and intention to transform itself, in other words, functioned within the limits that determine the operation of biological algorithms; their finalities were not obliterated nor ignored, but modified from within — transformed.

What’s so pivotal about this insight is that it offers a compelling explanation of the “mind-body” problem that is a scientifically compatible alternative to the traditional, discredited but intractable western assumption that the human mind is an example of the presence of a different kind of entity in the universe: spirit. Buddhist practice is consistent with the position that, in the case of humankind, the very biological organism made only of matter, without any change in its make-up whatsoever, is capable of a level of activity that other configurations of the same material components are not. Humans are capable of intentionally modifying the algorithms that determine organismic behavior.

Please notice the paradox here: even after modification, algorithms still determine behavior; nothing there has changed, it is still a completely biochemical, material phenomenon. But the bearing, the direction, the inclination, the proclivity of the algorithm has been significantly re-aligned, sometimes by as much as 1800. It is possible to turn the human organism in the completely opposite direction with regard to an object of desire or aversion. Hatred can become love, revulsion can become attraction.

So it appears that in the case of humankind, matter exhibits a transcendence that belies the limitations said to characterize it.

Before we go further on this path I want to make clear what I mean by transcendence. Transcendence for me never means that something — an entity or force — goes beyond matter, because I believe that there is nothing but material energy in our cosmos. I will always use transcendence to mean either a material event that goes beyond expectations (but never goes beyond materiality) or to refer to an unknown factor responsible for known phenomena — a factor which is also presumed to be material but cannot currently be identified by our instruments of observation and inferential tools. Transcendence refers to material events and to our know­ledge of them.

Matter transcends itself in two senses. Evolution is the first. Evolution is responsible for matter’s continual incremental re-configurations of its own internal relationship of elements under the impulse of the need to survive that eventually produce emergent species of being. By emer­gence evolutionary biologists mean the appearance in the material world of entities capable of levels of behavior that the earlier organisms from which they evolved were not.[3] Life, for example, is emergent in the evolutionary process. Organisms that apparently were not alive evolved into organisms that exhibited the behavior characteristic of life. Human conscious intelligence is another example. Animals that appeared incapable of what we call conscious intelligence eventually evolved into organisms that were capable of thought. This ability to produce new organisms that transcend their ancestors in significant ways is why I say that matter is transcendent in itself. Matter has the capacity to transcend itself through incremental modifications. It’s why I call my picture of the world transcendent materialism.

Please notice in passing, the incremental material modifications characteristic of evolutionary change resemble the features of the Buddhist method of modifying feelings and transforming behavior by controlling thought.

The second use of the word transcendence has to do with human understanding, what we have systematized into the disciplines we call science. Our sciences assume that all phenomena are the effects of causes. When there are phenomena whose cause science cannot identify we say that they are transcendent. But, I want to emphasize that the word does not refer to anything that is immaterial. It’s another example that justifies the term transcendent materialism. There is nothing that transcends matter. All the human activities known as “mental,” which includes the very ability to recognize one’s own self, are dependent on the integrity of the material structures of the human organism, like the brain, or they disappear or are significantly distorted. Transcendence in this second sense simply means that matter does things that go beyond what our sciences thought it could do.

The immediate corollary is that these components — comprised of the same material energy released at the time of the big bang — have all along had the potential for such behavior, a potential that was apparently activated by the specific re-configuration achieved in the evolutionary emergence of the organism. This demands that we re-think how we understand matter. It suggests that what we have called matter and defined in a way that was diametrically opposed to “spirit” was an erroneous imposition created by our prejudice. We thought matter was an inert, lifeless, unconscious, inanimate “stuff” that could be acted upon but could not act. We thought matter needed “spirit” if was to live and be conscious … that there had to be two kinds of reality: matter and spirit. But we were wrong.

We now realize that there is only one kind of “stuff” in our universe: something that in the past we alternately called matter or spirit and that now appears to be neither, but some “other” thing entirely that is capable of manifesting both kinds of behavior depending on the degree of the internal integration and complexification of its components. When I use the word “matter,” this stuff is what I mean. These components when integrated at the levels studied by physics and chemistry display none of the characteristics that come to dominate matter’s behavior in its more evolved forms — animal life and then later, human consciousness. Evolution in every case has elaborated organisms whose configurations are beyond the capacity of physics and chemistry to explain using their limited observational and analytical tools, requiring the establishment of entirely new disciplines based on their own premises and axioms — biology, psychology, sociology — to understand them.

Immanence

It would seem there is little more to be said at this point since we know so little. But at least we have clarified that the answer lies within matter itself beneath the surface of the phenomena perceptible at primitive levels of evolution. At other, more developed levels, matter’s transcendent behavior is altogether without explanation if matter’s primitive form — studied by physics and chemistry — is all we assume is there. There has to be something more to matter or life and thought remain utterly incomprehensible. What is that “something” and how do we speak of it in a way that does not contradict our belief that there is no dualism? We know there are not two realities but only one, and it is the one that we experience with our eyes, ears, nose, hands and minds — material reality.

Clearly we cannot say what it is, or even that it is a “what.” Perhaps it is a mere modulation of the frequency of a wave, or an imperceptible dimension, or a relationship as we have suggested earlier in this essay none of which are “things.”

But to know that we not only observe and can measure material phenomena for which we have no explanation whatsoever, and that these indisputably material phenomena for all their mystery and impenetrability are some of the most familiar, universal and successfully utilized capacities of the untrained human organism, like human thought and moral transformation, is to deepen and intensify the sense of transcendence. It makes it clear beyond question that transcendence is an entirely immanent quality of our cosmos’ material energy of which we are made. This transcendence, in other words, whatever it will ultimately turn out to be, does not belong to another world or plane of existence; it is interiorly part and parcel of the very components that make up our human organisms. It resides deep within matter and is constitutive of what matter is. We, and apparently all things made of matter, are the ground of that transcendence. There is no duality here, no “other thing” or other place, for we are talking only about matter in this cosmos. The source of our ability to stand above and beyond our own material algorithms and re-configure them so they transform who we think we are, is part of the very material fabric of our being. In one sense it is not mysterious at all for we live and use it every day … but we have no idea what it is.

We are nothing more than what we are, but what we are is more than we thought.

Religion

It is this more that corresponds to what the various world religions have identified as a divine principle, the source of our sense of the sacred.  I call it LIFE.  And while the Buddha never appealed to this divine principle either theoretically or in practice for the implementation of his program of self-transformation, he never denied its existence and he utilized the mind’s power to transcend organismic programming as the primary tool for achieving individual liberation and social harmony.  The point I am making is that despite the fact that I reject any claim that this divine principle is a rational “God” entity, a person, not made of matter, who is responsible for the existence of the forms and features of all other entities in the universe and for all the events that occur during the passage of time, the indisputable transcendence manifest in our world supports but does not obligate the fundamental religious conclusion that there is a divine principle resident in the universe. Those who choose to relate to this transcen­dence in a way that validates our sense of the sacred cannot be dismissed as irrational. By the same token, the absence of any clear knowledge of what exactly creates this transcendence, also validates those who, without dismissing it or its primordial influence on the human condition, choose to attribute it to unknown causes. Their parallel claim that the spontaneous sense of the sacred that has given rise to the world’s religions can be understood as the affective side of the conatus sese conservandum, an unavoidable echo of matter’s existential energy, is no less legitimate. “Atheism,” like religion, is reasonable but it is not obligatory.

In either case, however, the Buddha’s discoveries are compelling. Whether or not you choose to utilize his methods for transformation, you are enjoined to embrace basic morality — the eightfold path, the dharma — as indispensable to the survival of human society and to transform yourself accordingly. Social immorality — greed, hatred, exploitation, injustice, sexual violence, murder, larceny, prejudice, disrespect for persons or groups — is not an option no matter how it is presented in the movies. Whether or not individuals choose to integrate these insights with what they have inherited from their ancient religious traditions, all are faced with finding ways to live with gratitude and loving-kindness, suppressing greed, rejecting hatred, eliminating injustice, forgiving and having compassion on others, respecting and defending one’s own rights, repudiating the claims to superiority that lie at the base of all inter-tribal rivalry and conflict, protecting species other than human, defending the earth’s life-support systems by which we all live.

Basic morality is the key to social harmony. And social harmony is indispensable for human survival. Basic morality, therefore, is not optional. All religions may be thought of as different ways of motivating basic morality. But the Buddha showed that motivations other than the desire for individual peace of mind and the survival of society were not indispensable. Clear insight into what creates harmony and disharmony among people is all that is required. Anything else meant destruction. The Buddha appealed to common sense.

Metaphysics

Social harmony and therefore basic morality are obligatory because we cannot survive without them. Other human pursuits, like the desire to understand, are not, despite the innate thirst that drives them. The search for understanding, admittedly an almost insuppressible desire of the human mind arising from the leadings of conscious intelligence, cannot be considered obligatory for we can survive without it. But the universal experience of understanding through causes is operational for every human being from a very early age and those who try to prevent it, or control it, or deny it, are doomed to frustration. The ability to understand cannot be exterminated; it is the ground of personal freedom. As much as any other feature of our organism, it defines who we are as human beings. The hunger to understand is an intrinsic drive of human nature.

The very fact that there is an undeniable transcendent feature of the human condition — the power of moral transformation — for which we have no explanation leaves the human mind uneasy. Human beings are not comfortable in the face of mystery. And the discomfort created by being confronted with an effect for which we cannot assign a cause can reach such a level of intensity that it is not unusual to hear it described as painful. It is significant that once the cause is known and understood, the pain and tension quickly dissipates.

There is no way to suppress the desire to understand the source of the transcendence that we encounter in human life. Because of our abstract and convoluted history, however, many will not engage in this pursuit. Those who join the effort are all “scientists,” for that is the meaning of the term: those who explain effects by identifying their causes.

At the risk of oversimplification, I would agree that much of what we have inherited as religion in the West was the ancient habit of imagining other-worldly causes for known effects. Thus ancient religion has been correctly criticized as an ersatz “science” that flourished in the vacuum created by the absence of true science. Ancient religion imagined invisible causes which supposedly belonged to another, imaginary, world.

The scientific continuation of that religious search took the form of metaphysics, a branch of inquiry developed by the Greeks. What made metaphysics different from physics was precisely the visibility. Physics looked for the visible causes of visible effects, even if those causes were only visible to highly sophisticated instruments of observation. Metaphysics, on the other hand, assuming the existence of “spirit,” looked for the invisible causes of visible effects, causes that were invisible precisely because they were believed to belong to another world … a world where invisible ideas that were considered immaterial — spirit — were the only reality and extended their causal power to the visible world of matter.

Metaphysics as constituted in that historical context is no longer valid because there is no other world of invisible causal immaterial ideas that explains this material world of visible effects. But the process of understanding observable effects by identifying their sufficient and necessary causes remains. The difficulty arises that such causes are not necessarily discoverable by physics, not because they are not material, but because they are not visible either to the naked eye or to any currently extant tool of human observation or measurement. We simply do not know what portion of the spectrum of matter’s energy is occupied by the causes of human evolutionary transcendence, transformation and our inability to explain either.

But we know there is something there, because we can see its effects and they are clearly transcendent. So, do we need metaphysics? Drop the name if you insist, but the search will go on.

 

[1] Dhammapada, ch 1, # 1, Müller, F. Max. Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada (Dover Thrift Editions) (Kindle Locations 60-64). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.
[2] Ibid., ch XII, # 165, (Kindle Locations 279-280).
[3] Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. [Accessed January 11, 2018]. “emergence,” in evolutionary theory, the rise of a system that cannot be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions. …
The evolutionary account of life is a continuous history marked by stages at which fundamentally new forms have appeared: (1) the origin of life; (2) the origin of nucleus-bearing protozoa; (3) the origin of sexually reproducing forms, with an individual destiny lacking in cells that reproduce by fission; (4) the rise of sentient animals, with nervous systems and protobrains; and (5) the appearance of cogitative animals, namely humans. Each of these new modes of life, though grounded in the physicochemical and biochemical conditions of the previous and simpler stage, is intelligible only in terms of its own ordering principle.
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“It is what it is.”

“It is what it is … it is only what it is.  There is nothing more there than what is there.”

Before going any further I want to acknowledge the simple clarity and absolute ultimacy of those words. I totally agree with them. They are the sole basis and authority for the following discussion on how we relate to our material universe. These reflections limit themselves to the phenomenological dimension: they eschew metaphysics altogether.

 

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It’s because they are clear and ultimate that those words offer a challenge to our understanding of the material universe and the way we humans, who are its genetic offspring, relate to it. We are all and only matter. For over nine years in these essays, I have tried to be as clear and as ultimate about my understanding of reality and what that understanding means for religion. This particular articulation I’ve quoted advances my project significantly, and I am supremely grateful for its assistance. Why should I be so grateful?

Because most of the metaphysical ways of saying what I meant have run the risk of re-introduc­ing a fatal duality back into reality, a duality that I have struggled mightily to eradicate. Metaphysics is not our idiom, and we tend to take its abstractions and imagine them as “things.” I tried to address my apprehensions in two essays posted in August of 2016 titled “A Slippery Slope.”

That traditional duality is expressed in many ways: the “sacred and the profane,” “natural and supernatural,” mind and body, matter and spirit, “God” and creation. All are reducible to the notion that what we call “God” is an entity — a real separate independent stand-alone being, existing alongside of and opposed to other real individual “things” like the things in our material universe, including us. None of those dichotomies are real because the statement about a separate “God-entity” is not real. The differences and separations that they all assume — between “God” or a divine sphere and other things — do not exist. They are conceptual contraries that at one time, perhaps, were believed to be real ontological opposites, but are now recognized as chimeras. Trying to explain this in metaphysical terms is difficult to grasp.

Hence, I use the word “eradicate” intentionally because it evokes the image of “tearing up by the roots.” Using less surgically terminal language often will be taken to mean “the duality is officially deleted but we surreptitiously use it when no one is watching,” i.e., something we claim does not exist but we have recourse to in practice. The practice, of course is religion. Our western religions of the book have habituated us to a hopelessly anthropomorphic imagery about “God” and we tend to interpret any recognition of a divine principle to mean what our imagery has always evoked: a separate divine person. To insist that we are pursuing a meaningful synthesis of our understanding of reality and then refuse to integrate basic practice with the theoretical ground we claim to have established, is to fail at the very doorstep. For how true can our vision be if we can’t live with it? These reflections avoid that approach.

The way we have understood the presence of the Sacred in our lives is the source of the problem; it has created the difficulty we have in describing that presence in a way that sustains a consistency between vision and practice. It is difficult because, due to the conditioning of our religious heritage we do not seem to be able to conceptualize presence without evoking entity, and a rational humanoid entity besides.

Words betray us. They come to us already forged. In this case, the use of the word “presence” has already skewed the discussion. For the word implies that what we are talking about is a “thing.” So how do I both evoke the sense of a “presence that is really there” that goes beyond wishful thinking or the evocation of poetic symbols but that does not simultaneously imply the existence of a “thing,” an “entity,” a “substance” or a “person”?

 

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I am going to suggest the use of a word that I have used many times before that I believe speaks to the heart of matter — I believe it explains what I am talking about, and it is able to do that because, in fact, it is itself the real basis for the explanation. That word is “relationship.”

Now this word, like all our words has a charged history. The scholastics used it but gave it an ontological meaning. We still have a tendency to imagine relationship as a chemical valence, or an interaction of force fields between entities, suggesting an entity in its own right, invisible perhaps, but there, nonetheless … i.e., present.  So when we insist that a relationship is real we tend to slip into thinking of it as some thing that stands beside and alongside of other things, an example of the duality we are trying to eradicate. It is not. It is a bearing, an intentionality of the one thing toward another. (As a corollary it deserves mention that, in fact, relationship tends to reduce duality to unity because it generates a concurrence in the two things that are relating to one another that mimics a common identity.)

The mediaeval scholastic application of the category of relation to the persons of the Trinity was both the result of that ontologizing tendency and the cause of a Christian belief that took what were three different ways that human beings relate to the Source of their sense of the Sacred and imagined them to be metaphysical structures — real persons — that are internally constitutive of Deity itself. The absurdity here has been suppressed for so long that a rational discussion is virtually impossible today, not even in the closed door meetings where theologians talk to themselves. But I believe that relationship, correctly understood, is the best way to describe the entire realm of reality consigned to religion: the sphere of the Sacred. Let’s unpack all of this.

First, let’s consider how relationship is real. We’ll begin with an innocuous example: the relationship between me and my cat. I used to have a cat that I fed and took to the vet when she was sick. She was friendly to the point of appearing affectionate. I acknowledge it may only have been an evolutionary adaptation. Whatever my cat’s true feelings were, it worked with me. I “loved” my cat. She was not just a cat. She was my cat.

I may have seen a cat out on the street and couldn’t care less, but once I realized it was my cat my entire reaction changed. Before recognition and acknowledgement the animal was only what she was. After recognition she physically remained exactly what she was the second before but now she is transformed. Has anything changed? No! But then, Yes! because now she is the object of my loving-kindness. And these changes are real. Her entire significance in the human world where significance is significant has changed and following hard on that, so has her destiny in this vale of tears. The precarious life and possible violent death of a stray alley-cat is no longer her anticipated trajectory. And yet nothing has changed. She is what she is … she is only what she is and what’s there is the only thing that’s there.

But of course, what’s changed is my bearing as a member of the planet’s ruling species transforming the environment where she will eke out her survival. But even here, nothing’s changed except my attitude, or better, my acknowledgement of a relationship. That cat was my cat.

This kind of paradigm shift is even more pronounced in the case of human beings. The ability to observe and react to human beings differentially inside and outside of personal relationships actually characterizes much of human behavior and the complex history of clans and nations that has evolved from it. Our being … and our consequent destiny … is determined exclusively by relationship. The astonishing change in attitude that occurs when we accept people as known persons with whom we have a relationship is a prime example of the severely limited scope of the maxim that opened these reflections. “We are only what we are” until we are in a relationship. Then everything (metaphorically speaking) changes (it’s metaphorical precisely because, in fact, nothing changes). For the personal relationship transforms the individual not only in the eyes of the relator but in the individual’s own eyes as well. Relationships reduce discreteness and separation even as they preserve distinction and diversity. Such transformations can, and actually do change the course of human history. They do not affect the “thing,” but they do affect the process in which the thing works out its destiny.

Now this is really a no-brainer, but we don’t turn our attention to the fact that relational factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with “what is really and only there,” profoundly transform reality in the human sphere. And what, after all, are we talking about when we talk about religion, but the significance of the effects of relationship in the human sphere. Religion is not science. Religion is the activation of a bearing — a specific direction in the human process, an intentionality. Religion is what happens when we assume a certain relationship toward the material universe. The material universe includes us humans, who are a slightly more evolved version of biological organisms that share exactly the same matter as everything else there is.

 

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Well, what exactly is that relationship that is supposedly so transformative? It’s a relationship wherein human beings acknowledge that we are the product of a massive elaborative process going on within the super-abun­dant matter of which we are constructed and from whose more primitive forms we evolved. The very genetic modulations in form and function resulting from evolution already represent something of a challenge to the declaration that things are “only what they are.” For in the case of our own organism at one level we are “only” quarks and leptons, the sub-atomic quanta packets that are the building blocks of everything there is. And yet at another level here am I. At the level of my fully evolved organism I am something entirely and significantly different from the very elements of which I am constituted. The biological evolution occurring over eons and eons of deep geological time could not have taken place if the multiple sustained and consistent interactions evident in the availability of the material components and favorable environmental conditions were not there. No human being like myself, looking at this scenario rationally, could be anything but supremely grateful that the multiplicity of factors that comprised the conditions that allowed my humanity, which I enjoy so intensely, to exist— embodied in a material organism that is so much my own that it has given rise to my very self — were so stable, and that my ancestors had the ability to adapt to whatever instabilities continued to exist within that environment.

Gratitude. Now we are getting into the thick of it. I am grateful that I am here. Doesn’t gratitude imply that there is someone to whom I am grateful? And if there is someone to thank, aren’t we speaking about something other than what is “just there”? How can things be “just what they are” if as a matter of fact their presence is being provided (or has been provided) by someone or something else … which by implication must also be there if indeed it is the real provider of what is there?

Clearly this is what the author of the opening maxim was getting at: he was insisting there is no “God.” Please be advised, so do I. There is only the material universe doing what it has done on its own for the 14 billion years that we can verify its existence. Therefore a sentiment like gratitude that seems to imply something else, must be, in principle, an illusion.

Now this creates a problem, because the sense of gratitude is not only spontaneous and very intense, it is also sustained even after having been informed by modern science about the way evolution functions. As a matter of fact the sense of gratitude is as sustained, continuous and insuppressible as the sustained positive magnanimity that human beings perceive gives rise to it. Gratitude and magnanimity appear to be correlated, for we human beings, by being in an uninterrupted sense the product of a process like biological evolution, which we did not initiate and about which we have little knowledge and over which we have virtually no control, we have a profound sense of have been given, or provided … or to speak more impersonally: thrown, spawned, emanated, evolved … so the very interior feeling of “being only what I am” becomes difficult to maintain. I am constantly confronted with the evidence that I am not what I have chosen or made myself to be but rather I am the product of a multitude of contributing factors that are not me: the reproductive cells of my ancestors and theirs, the quality and availability of food in my now socially controlled environment, the accessibility of health care, police protection, infrastructure adequate to the prevailing climatic conditions, etc. These are the proximate causes of my existence. Even without referring to more remote cosmic conditions that made my existence possible I see that “what I am” depends in large measure on other things — on what I am not.

I really have no choice: like it or not, I have to be grateful, because the very thing that I cherish the most, my life, my self, is dependent upon a host of “other things.” Of course, in terms of strict logic, you may say you have no obligation to be grateful, because there is no one person or self-iden­ti­fied collectivity of persons who are responsible for all these things which make it possible to be here. My existence is not the result of any observable benevolence. But since when does obligation characterize gratitude, any more than the acts that gave it rise? The feeling of gratitude, I contend, does not come from the identification of a donor, it comes from the acknowledgement of dependency — the awareness of being a recipient. I love my life, hugely, and I am supremely grateful to whatever it is — no matter how many disparate and unconnected factors there are — that make my life possible. Gratitude is first and foremost the recognition of having received myself from elsewhere … of not having made myself. It is a spontaneous reaction that arises and is sustained in total ignorance of the source of such largesse.

If we are going to analyze this accurately I believe we have to keep this sequence of discovery in mind and acknowledge what is primary and what is secondary. Nothing “objective” except other conditioned material factors have been mentioned as the source of my precarious existence. What we know is what we are, and what we are is the end product of a multiplicity of agents, the majority of which we are ignorant of and, in fact, we may never know. This indisputable reality that conditions what we are, i.e., that we are radically dependent, is the starting point; it absolutely determines our self-embrace. To accept ourselves for what we really are is to accept ourselves as received from elsewhere, and so totally NOT in control of our own existence that we don’t even know all the things on which we are actually dependent to continue being here and being what we are.

Clearly, in this view, what we are is an item in a vast network of things and processes that transcend our organism in whatever direction we look.   So from this angle it seems that anyone who would claim that “what is there is the only thing that’s there” must recognize that the “what” is really an immense totality in motion in which I am borne along like a drop of water in a great river, about which we are all generally aware but which is unknown in all its depth and detail both in things and the forces operative in the process. Without knowing all of what goes into our being here as ourselves, we are not in a position to make any definitive statement about etiology: source and causation. We are utterly agnostic about everything except the one known and clear fact: that we are totally dependent on a vast collectivity that is not us for our being-here and being what we are. And the practical and unavoidable psychological counterpart of this perception is gratitude.

 

4

Now I am going to claim that this self-perception entails a correlative self-embrace that is a crucial step in the establishment of humankind’s moral posture. In other words, the recognition and acceptance of dependency — and its associated gratitude — is constitutive of the moral embrace of the human being functioning within a community of human beings who are necessarily affected as a community by this mutual common acknowledgement. The acceptance of dependency (which includes social inter-dependency) brings a particular moral bearing to the business of living together in community that is achieved by no other means. The community of people who are all personally aware of this fact about themselves and all the members of their community are predisposed to making collective decisions that are compassionate and cooperative: advantageous to each and all.

I believe that this is the primary and foundational level of human social/personal life. This is “ground zero,” the absolutely unavoidable constituent bedrock of human social cooperation. It is essential to human survival because the human individual cannot live outside of human community physically or psychologically. Everything else is secondary to this ground. The perception of dependency and the feeling of gratitude for life are critical to human well-being.

Religion is secondary. There is nothing primary or foundational about religion. Religion has no “facts” of its own. Religion is a tool that the human community has developed to assist in the establishment and the continued protection of the instinct to gratitude with all its sources, viz., the perception of dependency.  In this effort to preserve this personal bearing that society needs so desperately in order to maintain its cooperative character, in ancient times an entire sphere of causes was invented out of the poetic imagination of our earliest ancestors in order to fill the gap in our ignorance. Today we call it myth. This is religion.

The perception of dependency and the concomitant feeling of gratitude is indisputable fact. It is the only religious fact. The rest is projection. The sources and causes of the dependency and the sources and causes of the sustained magnanimity of available resources are fundamentally unknown even to this day. To eliminate this hiatus in our knowledge, which was much more pronounced before the discoveries of modern science, religion was invented and the unknown sources and causes of the desired attitudes imagined. This occurred wherever human community was found, accounting for the plethora of religious forms across the globe. In each case the result was the same: the unknown source and sustainer of existence was imagined and projected as real, generally in the form of a sphere of creative power, both benevolent and malevolent, that were entities humanoid in character — “gods.”

 

5

The gratitude founded on the awareness of dependency that I am now evoking as constitutive of human society and therefore religion, is fundamentally the same as what I have called in other contexts, a sense of the sacred. I spoke of the sense of the sacred as the spontaneous reaction of the individual human being, driven by the innate conatus to survive, aware of his own precarious possession of existence, and the consequent thirst and hunger for a secure source.   They are the same phenomenon seen in the first case from a social perspective, and an individual in the second. In each the phenomenon I am talking about is a human psychological bearing, an attitude, an intentionality that derives from the human perception of its own vulnerability … i.e., that human beings do not possess a stand-alone locked-down control over their having been born, or being this person or that, or how long their existence as human organisms will last or where it is going … but nevertheless love cherish and will do anything to preserve their life.

It is what the Buddhists call the awareness of “dependent arising” which is often conceptualized in later Buddhism as “emptiness.” Everything is “empty” because everything is characterized by the absence of independent existence. Please notice: there is no mention of, much less identification of a metaphysical source of existence, or an objective remedy for emptiness. The entire exercise has been on the subjective side. The analysis attempts to plumb the human source of the religious phenomenon and finds it in the common experience of humankind of its depen­dency which generates religion as its universal response. Essential to that response is gratitude.

Putting all this together with the transformative power of relationship that we explored in sections 2 and 3, we can see what religion has come to mean for the human species. The relationship to life that is characterized by gratitude sustains and justifies a cooperative spirit in the human community. A sense of gratitude deriving from an awareness of dependency transforms the perception of the material environment from being neutral or even hostile to patently familiar, magnanimous and profligate, if not benevolent.

I want to emphasize: the transformative factor in this view of things is not the identification of some “God” person, despite the fact that people will tend to imagine a sustained magnanimity as the gift of a benevolent source, and benevolence evokes personality, as does gratitude. In the view I am espousing, however, all things remain exactly and only what they are and always have been: the evolved versions of material energy released at the big bang. There is nothing else there. The only change is the relationship generated by the community of human individuals who — prodded by an insuppressible innate material instinct for self-preservation — love and cherish the human life they possess and everything that has gone into creating and sustaining it. The individual comes to realize that he or she isn’t just “what he is, or what she is.” They realize they are the point of coalescence of all their multiple causes and therefore bear within themselves each of those causes. They recognize themselves as the spawn and representative of a totality in process about which they know almost nothing.

Ultimately, then, it can be said that gratitude is reducible to the love of life, and the love of life to the embedded conatus. It must be acknowledged that we are to that extent utterly determined. We cannot help ourselves. “We cannot keep from singing,” as the old Baptist hymn proclaims, not because we have positively encountered some divine benevolent donor who has blessed us with the gift of human life, but simply because we cannot do otherwise. We love material life because WE ARE MATERIAL LIFE and we are programmed to love what we are. We can’t help it. If we try to suppress it we make ourselves sick. We are grateful because we have exactly what we are programmed to want; our only problem is we do not have it permanently. (The vain attempt to create this absent permanence by accumulating things and aggrandizing the “self” at the expense of others is the source of all self-inflicted human suffering, conflict, injustice and disharmony among us. Correlatively, the acceptance of impermanence accompanied by an unconditioned gratitude gives rise to an attitude of compassionate loving-kindness toward the entire cosmos of dependent entities which gave us birth and to which we belong.)

These minimalist conclusions may not satisfy those who have become dependent on their fantasies about “God” persons and other “spiritual” entities imagined to live in a parallel world invisible to us, but it helps make clear what exactly we are dealing with. These are the phenomena we are confronted with. As far as facts are concerned, it is all we know. It exhaustively describes our present condition; it is indisputable. How all this began and is able to sustain itself and what it will all become, is a matter of legitimate metaphysical conjecture, and in the context of our universally acknowledged ignorance, no reasonable possibility can be validly dismissed beforehand as untenable. Those who have decided to opt for the traditional western humanoid “God” person(s) have no greater claim to factuality than any other theory about the origins and destiny of our reality. It is all the work of the imagination — every bit of it.

But in addition I want to emphasize: it is all secondary. The primary event is the acceptance of the full depth of dependency that characterizes organic life and the whole hearted embrace of the spontaneous gratitude and loving-kindness that wells up in the human heart toward the multiple factors, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious, proximate and remote that have concurred so marvelously in producing and sustaining my existence. I embrace in an act of loving-kindness all the cosmic forces that produce my existence. This is the ultimate religious act. It transforms the cosmos itself from being “just what it is” to being my cosmos — the beloved ancestor that spawned me. This is not metaphor. It is raw fact. And the love I have for myself is transmitted to my cosmos, my environment, my community, making it cherished, the object of loving-kindness, compassion and concern. There may not have been any affect of love toward me functioning in any of the various “causes” of my existence, including my parents whose copulation may have been devoid of any focus outside of themselves and their own enjoyment. It doesn’t matter. I don’t love them because they loved me but because they gave me existence. It is my existence that I love. The relationship is created unilaterally by my gratitude as recipient — by my love of my LIFE — and it transforms the universe by bathing it in the light and heat of loving-kindness. It turns the universe into my universe, and the earth into my earth, and gathers all the human beings around me into that embrace. All people become my people because I love LIFE.

Imagine, then, a community of people each individually grateful for his or her LIFE and mindful of the many sources of mutual conditioning among us by which each one affects each other. We each embrace all, in our gratitude and compassion, and we are each embraced by all in theirs. For we know what we are made of. We are well aware of our radical dependency. We are dust and fast disappearing. This I contend is the religious event. The one thing necessary. The act of cosmic gratitude is constitutive of the authentic human individual and the cooperative human community. Without it full humanity remains only a potential of the individual organism which continues being “just what it is” until energized by the transforming power of the community’s gratitude, evoking loving-kindness.

So it’s true. Things are “just what they are.” In one sense they never change because “they are only what’s there, and they are there the way they just happened to get there.” But in another sense, once we humans acknow­ledge our dependency on the cosmic forces that went into our makeup, the relationship of loving-kindness that we cast over all of reality like a cosmic net, driven by our innate conatus, transforms our world, physically, biologically, socially. If you doubt that you have that power, try cosmic gratitude for just one day. You’ll see.

This is the transforming work of human moral power, not some washed-up ancient war-god with a dubious and unsavory résumé trying to reinvent himself for modern times. Human moral power, and the unknown living wellspring that feeds it, is the only thing in our universe that transcends “dependent arising.” This is where metaphysics begins.