A reflection and a parable
I usually use the word LIFE in place of “God,” but here I use the word “Source.” I believe it is more appropriate. It is less religiously allusive, and I think that compassionate atheists belong in this conversation because of the new universal consensus provided by science. We all know what we are made of and how we got here. And we all have to respond to what we know we are. This is not a “religion” issue. Theists belong in this discussion, but they have no privileged place.
The departure point for this reflection is my main proposition ― what this blog has been trying to say for over ten years. The distinction between us and our “Source” is exclusively in the relationship of existential causality.
Our “Source” makes us to be-here, we do not make our Source to be-here, but in all other respects, we are indistinguishable from our Source which is present and active in the presence of our living material organism. We are-here together. Since the effects are matter, the cause has to be material, i.e., physically capable of making my living matter to be-here as my matter, in the present moment. Whatever else my living matter’s source may be, it must be matter, and it must be alive; it must be the same matter that I am. The distinction between my Source and my organism is only the metaphysical structure of cause and effect.
Here’s an image that illustrates that relationship. Think of your on-going “self” ― your living human organism ― as a pool of water actively welling up from an underground spring. The “source” of that visible, active spring of water is not itself visible but it has to be producing the pressure necessary to keep the water flowing up to the surface. It is truly “source,” for it not only provides the action, it provides the very water itself. The pool on the surface is nothing more (and nothing less) than the emergent flow of its source: it IS its source at a further point in a space-time process. The only distinction between the spring and its underground source comes from the structured nature of the process. To express this, we use a category of thought we call “causality,” which is shorthand for antecedent and consequent phenomena in a process. I do not mean unconnected phenomena that just happen to appear in a temporal sequence. The antecedent phenomenon, in this case, is not only prior to but really makes the consequent phenomenon to appear, while the contents and forces operating in each are exactly the same, in reality and not just in appearance.
Now, applying this imagery to the human organism, we can see scientifically what comprises this “self” that emerges from moment to moment as a living presence in the world: it is material energy ― the quarks and electrons, gluons and neutrinos that congealed out of the amorphous energy plasma released at the big bang. These elements evolved through many forms over eons of astrological/geological time into the living organism that we all enjoy. The DNA-guided human organism is nothing but a form of material energy-in-process. Material energy is our source, and like the spring, we and our source are one and the same thing, undivided, indistinguishable, inseparable, a single process structured as cause and effect. The quarks and muons of living matter are the source of the motor and emotive activity we call “life” but they also comprise the content ― every last bit of “stuff” ― that our organisms are made of, blood and bones, hair and hormones. Everything is matter’s energy.
But doesn’t there have to be something else? If material energy ― my source ― is the same in everything, even the stones, how do I come to be “me,” and where does the force of life come from except through some factor other than matter’s energy?
In a Platonic universe, everything sharing the same word also shared the same idea, and, therefore was thought to share the same reality. That’s why, in a spiritual universe, the idea of humanity made us all “one thing.” Platonists needed to posit an individual spiritual soul uniquely created by “God” to account for personal human spiritual individuality.
In a material universe, in contrast, particles of matter are not all the same, therefore the cluster of particles that comprise my organism is different from yours. Individuality comes from a multitude of coalescing particles and forces, all of which have a uniqueness of their own that derives from a prior similar coalescence from other more remote sources. What you call them does not affect their particularity. I am “me” because a huge multiplicity of unique particles and forces came together at the same time to construct “me.” There is no need to posit a “spiritual soul” to account for individuality. Individuality is a material phenomenon.
Similarly, as regards life, matter, in the pre-scientific Platonic universe, was considered dead and inert. Platonists thought it required that a living spiritual idea be intentionally inserted into matter by a rational divine “Craftsman” for matter to be alive. But in the material universe that science has discovered in our times, if matter is itself a living energy, as many claim it is, life is present as a potential in all particles and forces from the very beginning, ready to become perceptible as life when the complexity sufficient and necessary for its appearance is achieved.
How can a collection of sub-atomic particles become “me”?
I offer a parable. It starts with our image of the human organism as an emerging spring of water. Let’s imagine this particular organism has been visited by the coronavirus which uses living human DNA to replicate itself. In my reverie there are two little coronaviruses, brother Covidone and sister Covidella. (I give them names to evoke familiarity, because they are living organisms just like we are, trying to survive by using whatever they find around them. Francis of Assisi would understand.) They are living on the banks of the spring, which is the human organism, reproducing because of the life-giving power of the upwelling water: living human DNA.
They are relaxing and basking in the sun after replicating, and they are chatting. Covidone says, “Della, I wonder where all this wonderful water that keeps us alive and reproducing comes from? We’re good swimmers; why don’t we go down into the wellspring and locate the original source of the water. It’s gotta be down there somewhere.” Covidella said, “great idea, Vido, let’s do it.”
With that the two little adventurers start down into the spring, swimming against the upwelling current. They find themselves in a kind of shaft, a long vertical tunnel; the water is being forced up from below and they keep going down. Finally, at a great depth the shaft opens into a large cavern filled with water. It was clear that pressure from the cavern’s water was making it rise to the surface. “This is it,” said Vido, “this is the Source of the Spring. Both the water and the pressure come from here. I think we should just pitch our tent and stay here. It’s the source of the life we live on. Maybe, here, we can live forever, d’ya think”?
Della was skeptical. “There are two things I still don’t understand,” she said. “The first is the water itself. Was it always here? And the second is the pressure. Why is this water under pressure”?
Vido had to admit she was right. Where did this water come from, and what was the reason for the pressure? The two began to take another look around.
They saw that water was coming into the cavern on all sides from stratified layers of earth and rock. “Well, now,” Della says, “it looks like the water really comes from multiple sources and they all feed into this one place. Let’s pick one of these strata and follow it wherever it leads and see where its water comes from. That may take us to the original source.” Off they go, following a very thin sheet of water in one of the strata. They immediately notice that they are no longer going down, but they are now swimming uphill against a current that is flowing downhill.
It’s not long before they emerge back out onto the surface of the earth. But something was still making them wet. “Where is the water coming from now”? They look up and they realize: it’s raining!
The water all along had been coming from millions and millions of raindrops. The rain was falling on the ground, seeped into the earth until it encountered some formation ― like the stone cavern ― that forced the water to collect. With no place to go, the pressure from gravity built up. Eventually, when some outlet, lower than the level of the water sources, allowed it to escape, it emerged in the form of a spring. The “Source” was raindrops all along.
The story takes on meaning with the change in perspective that occurs when we accept the fact that all of reality, even its living forms, like the virus, and us, are all and only matter. It helps explain how our living “selves” emerge from matter.
We are all made of the same clay. That means that all things, living and non-living, are subject to the same conditions for being-here, everywhere. Living organisms have the added burden of trying to stay alive in the midst of the maelstrom of roiling forces that constitute matter’s energy launched as our universe 14 billion years ago. This realization, occurring to someone who has not been totally consumed and blinded by belief that the “self” does not belong to this world, is enough to awaken a sense of compassion not only for other human beings, but for all things, for we are all made of the same “stuff” driven by the same forces. We belong only to this world, but we are not just ourselves. Everything is a temporary composite of that same “stuff.” And everything will decompose. Even the stones will perish. We, including the viruses, are one family. We didn’t ask for things to be this way, but it is the condition for our being-here. We are matter in a material universe.
Is this some kind of nightmare? No one I know would say so. We can’t explain it, but despite the suffering it entails and our final dissolution, to be-here is to die for. We love it. We can’t help ourselves. It’s hard-wired into our bones. We want to be-here forever.
It is relevant to ask, “why”?
In the parable, the living spring was really raindrops. In the metaphysics of the Mahayana Buddhist system, the multiple threads that weave my “self” ― not unlike the raindrops ― are virtually infinite in number and type. It effectively amounts to the whole universe-in-process. That is what Buddha meant by “no-self.” Anatman ― the doctrine of “no-self” ― doesn’t mean there is nothing there, or that there is no “me.” Just the opposite. It means that “I” am the emanation of a vast multiplicity of sources, throughout geological time as well as in the present moment, all of which had to function together in order for my living organism to be-here now with the form and features that it has.
The spring was raindrops; our “selves” are particles of matter’s living energy.
The doctrine of “no-self” expands “I” into “all things.” It says we are not separate selves; rather we are the product of a totality that transcends the self and includes everything. No identifiable, eternal, independent, self-subsistent self, apart from its causes whose synchronicity is subject to eventual termination by entropy, can be said to exist. When that amazing confluence ceases to coalesce, the self, which is only the reflexive consciousness of the resulting composite, disappears. Nothing else disappears. All the components ― matter’s living energy ― continue on. Nothing is created; nothing is destroyed.
A new imagery for “God”
So if “God” is really the Source of our being-here we are confronted with a huge challenge to the traditional imagery we have inherited from our pre-scientific forebears about what “God” is like. In ancient times, based on our experience of potters and carpenters, artists and sculptors we imagined a Craftsman of great power and intelligence who designed and shaped each and every kind of thing that we could see on earth. But, as we know now, that story was a product of our imagination; it was the best we could do in the absence of any real knowledge. Now we know better. We have learned that the earth itself, this planet, evolved all the life forms that live on it, including humankind, out of its own substance. We know what we are made of, and how we got here the way we are. The Genesis story was plausible guesswork for a long time; but it was wrong.
John said, “No one has ever seen God,” but going by our experience of brutal tyrants, we generated the picture of a grasping, controlling, cruel, thin-skinned, punitive and self-involved narcissist, that ran counter to everything that our human flesh cried out for. Why did we do that? When finally someone came along who challenged that imagery and said that “God” corresponded to our instinctive longing for justice and cooperation, love and compassion, the ruling “authorities” killed him to shut him up, and proceeded to appropriate his name to sustain their own slave-driven enterprises. “No one has ever seen ‘God’,” said John, but that didn’t stop us in our blindness from creating all manner of distorted imagery that, even today, continues to turn human beings into frightened grasping creatures who hate themselves and everyone else.
What do we do now? The blinders have come off and we can see clearly how this entire universe evolved and operates. We know our “Source” and how its creative energy functions. We have a new imagery to integrate. The word “God” has to take on a new meaning. We can’t claim ignorance any longer. We cannot continue to excuse our willful clinging to imagery inherited from ancient fairy tales. We have to face squarely how we have mis-taken and misunderstood our “Source” . . . and therefore how we have misinterpreted ourselves, what we are. We are our Source poured out and made available for all things to be-here, each in their own way, together. WE ARE THAT! Like the rain ― generous, abundant, self-emptying, undiscriminating ― life-generating energy is what we are made of. It is what we are!
What “providence” means has to be radically reimagined. There is no invisible rational “person” who chose to let 150,000 children die in the Haitian earthquake, or who “permitted” the Nazis to seek the “ultimate solution” for two millennia of Christian Jew-hatred in the Holocaust. There is no “person” who refuses to perform a miracle to cure your child’s cancer, or who wills rich and powerful men to enslave and exploit the masses of humankind, manipulate the minds of the frightened and despoil the earth of its ability to sustain life. There is no “person” who puts thoughts in your head, or who will “marry” you on the condition that you stay celibate.
Our “Source” is like the rain. Wherever it falls it brings life. It is always being used by others. In itself it is nothing, but it becomes all things. It has become us. We humans, like springs, are that same rainwater pouring itself out on the earth, now as persons, intentionally.
When we finally appropriate that reality and become rain for others, we will need no more proof. All our questions will be answered. It is at that moment that we will experience in our blood and bones why being-here is to die for.