Anatman … the Buddhist teaching of “No-Self”

3,500 words

Those who are familiar with Buddhism are aware that Buddha taught that the “self” is an illusion. It has been called the core teaching of the Buddhist vision and forms the basis of its practice. The word for it in Sanskrit is anatman, and anatta in the Pali dialect.

While it is emphasized that Buddhist truths are not to be understood metaphysically but experientially, most observers believe that, whether intended or not, what we in the West call the human “soul,” conceived as a permanent, separately existing entity, the locus of thought and the individual human identity, intentionality and personality — a metaphysically real “thing,” — is exactly what the Buddhist teaching rejects. The position is that the Buddhist “No-Self,” which is claimed to be an undeniable fact of experience, would not be possible if there were a metaphysical “soul.”

Rather than debate potentially unsolvable metaphysical questions, Buddhists focus on what they believe really matters: the effectiveness of the No-Self teaching in directing and energizing the individual’s liberation from the cravings that create suffering.

The “soul,” the Fulcrum of Western culture

Western observers, however, are a different breed of cat. What No-Self means in the physical / metaphysical world may have been of no interest to Buddha’s followers, but we in the West come out of a tradition that has been centered for millennia on the doctrine of the spiritual soul, an “immaterial substance” (sic) that is capable of living without the body. The traditional western “soul” is immortal and its destiny is to exist for all eternity in another world where only spirits reside.  Naturally those who are still convinced of the ancient western tradition in this regard want to dispute the Buddha’s claims, for their view of the world depends on it.

The “soul” has been crucial in the West because it was the inner dynamic of all social construction.  If there is no soul during life, there also are no persons.  Persons are distinguishable in our tradition from other biological individuals because persons have souls and the others do not.  So the issue is relevant to our original question.  Is there actually a “soul” which really exists and bears the identity and eternal destiny of the human individual?  Everything social depends on recognition and respect for individual persons, from family patterns to legal systems, from business transactions to law enforcement and penitentiaries.

In addition, the “soul” is the basis of moral coercion.  If the soul does not survive as this individual person after death, there can be no judgment or punishment; and without fear of punishment there is no way to compel obedience to the moral law.  Of course, the down side is it tends to reduce human life to quid pro quo — a business transaction: moral behavior in exchange for an eternal life without suffering.

So the question: does the human being have an immortal soul?

You might be surprised to hear that Christianity has had a strange history in this regard. The earliest “theologians,” like Tatian and Athenagoras, known as “apologists,” who wrote in the second century, believed that the soul was the form of the body and when the body died its animating principle — the soul — disappeared with it. That the soul was naturally immortal and could live without the body they condemned as a pagan belief.[1] They argued that it would render the resurrection superfluous.  Immortality belonged only to the gods, not to humankind, and the overwhelming gift of God in Christ was that divine immortality was now shared with man, a completely undeserved supernatural donation, and that the recipient was not a disembodied soul, but the individual living human being.

But that changed.  By the third century Christian writers like Tertullian were declaring the soul to be naturally immortal.[2]  This change of perspective suggests there had been a “coup” in which educated upper-class converts to Christianity had taken over leadership in the Church and had begun to reshape doctrine to concur with their worldview.  The belief in the existence of the immortal soul was the centerpiece of the Platonism that was the accepted wisdom — the science — of the Greco-Roman educated classes in Late Antiquity.  It came to be considered an undeniable fact of nature.  That assumption lasted until the fourteenth century when William of Ockham showed it could not be proven by reason alone.  He relegated it to a matter of faith.  It was officially defined true as a matter of faith by the Catholic Church at the 5th Lateran Council in 1513.

That doesn’t prove there is a soul. But there’s also no way to disprove it. The Buddhists don’t even try. They claim that what is compelling for them is the way the doctrine of No-Self functions for the liberation of the individual and through that for the wellbeing of human society.  For the “self” asserts rights and makes demands that contribute to cravings to seek pleasure, avoid pain and aggrandize the ego that lead to entrapment in an unending cycle of demands and dissatisfactions that adversely impacts human society. And correlatively, when those cravings are starved they tend to shrivel and disappear, lending credence to the proposition that the “rights and demands” originally asserted by the “self” in their regard were fictional to begin with.  The individual survived and actually lived quite well without responding to them.  That, in turn, corroborates the Buddha’s insight that the “self,” the source of those demands, is itself an illusion.  The self has no rights and can make no demands because it is not really there.

So the Buddhists can always say to the westerner who demands proof of the teaching of No-Self that they have an indirect proof.  They can prove experientially that the human organism is malleable — changeable.  What appear to be its needs can be reduced to the point that they no longer assert themselves, calling into question the validity of those needs and the metaphysical ground claimed to be their origin.

The Metaphysical Question

But for us in the West, the question of the real existence of the soul deserves to be resolved — physically and metaphysically — in the same terms which have been used to support it for millennia.

First, by physical I refer to the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, biology. Do these disciplines with their specific tools ever encounter evidence that would compel one to conclude that the “soul” as traditionally believed actually exists? Can it be observed and measured in some way? Theories that a body weighed right before death and again immediately after showed a difference, were made in pursuit of exactly that kind of proof.

By metaphysical I refer to the rational examination of the conditions that accompany existence. Metaphysics determines what the minimum requirements are for something to be-here, to exist. Are those conditions present in the case of the soul?

I think it’s safe to say that there is no compelling physical evidence that the soul exists without the body. Claims of weight loss at death have been disproven. But there are other claims. For example, phenomena emanating from the human organism, specifically the ability to think, identify itself, observe itself thinking, etc., suggest capacities that go beyond what material reality was traditionally thought capable of. But none of those pheno­mena seem grounded in anything but the human material organism; and when the organs that serve as platforms for those activities are damaged or destroyed, the behavioral phenomena disappear or are altered beyond recognition. What have been traditionally adduced as materially transcendent activities, therefore, on closer examination appear to be completely dependent upon the material organism for their existence and character.

Besides, the growing acknowledgement among philosophers of a possible “mental dimension” to material reality, represented by the term “neutral monism,” suggests that projecting a separate spiritual substance outside and independent of matter is no longer necessary to explain the phenomena.[3]  Matter may contain within itself the explanation of what it is obviously capable of evolving into.  Human thought is the product of the human brain, a completely material organ, not an other-worldly ”soul.”

But the Buddhists’ argument for the No-Self is also telling in this regard.  The apparently identifiable permanent “self” experienced during life is thoroughly changeable (albeit not without difficulty) exactly as they claimThis seems to be similarly dependent upon the body, for those practices designed to reduce craving involve the imposition of self-denial on organic urges resulting in their quiescence.  The “self” changes because the body changes.  This provides more evidence for the absence of any permanent and substantive “self” even before death.  The “self” is a mental construct — a result of organic urges, it is not the source of those urges.

Then, when the organism dies, all activity of whatever kind  ceases. There is no indication of the existence after death of something containing the essence and identity of the deceased human individual any more than in the case of any other species of biological organism.  Like all human functions that go beyond the ordinary behavior of other biological entities, the identity function is dependent upon the human organism for its existence and normal operation.  When the brain deteriorates, even before death, self-coherence is also affected, sometimes drastically.  So in answer to the question about the metaphysical conditions for anything to exist, it appears that the first requirement is that it be matter; and when the organism’s matter decomposes or becomes diseased, the “self” disappears or becomes unrecognizable.  Even if the self is a “soul” it needs a corresponding and healthy material base to exist.

The atomic composition of the human organism

But there is another side to this question, and that is the nature of matter itself.  This impacts the unity and integrity of all things made of matter including the human being.  All things are comprised of the same material energy coalesced into various kinds of sub-atomic, atomic and molecular particles and corresponding force fields.  There is nothing that is not made of the very same matter, and that includes all living organisms at all levels of complexity and in all aspects of their form and function, even the neurological.  It is all the same matter.

The human being is a biological organism — a highly complex fully integrated combination of atomic elements and the fields associated with them.  These elements, in turn, all come from the material environment where the organism resides.  Oxygen, the element needed to combine with nutritional fuel for the metabolic combustion that occurs in living cells, is drawn into the organism continuously from the outside through respiration with every breath.  The waste products of cell metabolism, carbon dioxide and water, are similarly borne by blood returning to the lungs to be expelled outside into earth’s atmosphere where it becomes available to other organisms that use it for their own lives.

The water that makes up 70% of the human body is a chemical combination of hydrogen with oxygen forming a liquid.  It is, like air, taken in continuously from outside the body and, as the bearer of the waste products of metabolism, expelled outside.

All things share these elements that comprise the human body.  Hydrogen is the simplest element: one proton and one electron field.  Every other element of the more than 120 that make up the periodic table, represents a complexification of hydrogen, as nuclei gathered more protons and their accompanying electron fields.  Everything made of matter is a result of the evolution of hydrogen, combining and integrating with itself over eons of time, first in the super-hot furnaces at the heart of stars forming elements that later evolved into the life forms we are familiar with.  So that scientist and author Curt Stager can validly say to his readers: “Hydrogen has become you after billions of years of stellar fusion and countless dances of atoms in air, earth, fire and water” and in turn, “you bequeath them” … “to the many lives yet to come.”[4]

What is true of air and water can be said equally of everything that makes up the human organism and all its metabolic and behavioral functions.  They are constructed of the temporary possession of elements and their composites that exist in sufficient quantity in the surrounding environment to provide the organism with an uninterrupted existence.  I say “temporary possession” because every single atom of every organ or function in the body is replaced on the average of every seven years with atoms from the environment.  The atoms of the elements in the human body are exactly the same as those residing in other life forms and in the rocks, soil and water of the accessible surroundings.  All this suggests a continuous exchange of material elements between the individual human organism and the rest of the material universe. The homogeneity and the sharing of the matter possessed by all the entities, living and non-living, evokes for some observers like atomic physicist David Bohm the image of a single flowing river within which there develop waves and eddies and vortices (whirlpools) which give the appearance of being separate individuals but are all and only the river.[5]

There is nothing unique about any biological organism; it is all made of the same matter, and if the “soul” is defined as the coherence of this human body, it would seem to partake of the same homogeneity. So it should be no surprise that we recognize the characteristic functioning of the conatus in all other life forms.  Self-preservation, on display in self-defense, the flight from enemies, the search for food, the desire to reproduce and the need to gather with others for collective survival, is com­mon across all the phyla of living things.  The signs of its functioning are unmistakable, especially among animal forms, and creates the basis for our sense of compassion and companionship with them.  The very fact that despite vast differences in our organisms — like insects — we are able to recognize similar behavior driven by the same needs, suggests a homogeneity of the source.  We all act the same because we are made of the same clay — matter’s energy, and in its living forms we can see that matter is driven to exist, so we suspect it was driven to exist even before it was incorporated into a living organism.

Life, we conclude, is not something separate from the matter we encounter in the living forms that inhabit our planet as if injected from outside.  It was an intrinsic property of matter all along that only became perceptible when it came together in just the right way.  Similarly, with consciousness. The individual recognition that occurs between and among all species of animals reveals that the phenomenon exists across the various phyla of animal life.  We also suspect that the potential for consciousness — Strawson’s thesis — is an intrinsic property of matter that necessarily functions at all levels of evolved integration albeit with the capacity of range and depth allowable by the extent of the complexification.  Those familiar with farm animals know that chickens, goats, horses, pigs, dogs and cats can differentiate between human individuals even though they all do so at very different levels of ability.  We observe that consciousness is present according to various levels of complexity in all species of animals and therefore we extrapolate this potential to the substrate itself of which all these species are made.

Relativity and quantum mechanics

The 20th century saw two major breakthroughs in physics that have completely undermined the security we once had about the nature of matter.  The theories of relativity and quantum me­chanics have revealed matter to be a fundamentally mysterious quantization of an essentially homogeneous flow of energy through time that fills the universe.  This energy sometimes manifests itself as particles and sometimes as force fields or waves.  It calls into question the fundamental imagery we have had that matter and what is made of matter are dense impenetrable “things” that are all outside of one another.

Rather it appears that at the quantum level matter compenetrates other matter, exists in more than one behavioral state simultaneously and that in its wave form each particle extends through­out the universe and its presence where it integrates with others to form organisms can only be accounted for statistically, i.e., with a certain degree of probability, not with precision.

This indeterminacy has made it impossible to simultaneously fix the location and behavior of particles.  The observations themselves are revealed to be part of the phenomenon observed adding credence to the suspicion that the imagery of impenetrable masses that we have inherited from our traditional science is false.  The observer is not outside of what is observed.

… relativity and quantum theory agree, in that they both imply the need to look at the world as an undivided whole in which all parts of the universe, including the observer and his instruments, merge and unite in one totality.  In this totality the atomistic form of insight is a simplification and an abstraction, valid only in some limited context.[6]

The proposal for a new general form of insight is that all matter is of this nature: that is, there is a universal flux that cannot be defined explicitly but which can only be known implicitly … . In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather they are different aspects of one whole and unbroken movement.[7]

The human organism, in this scenario, is thus comprised of trillions and trillions of these sub-atomic components whose physical reality is commensurate with the totality of matter’s universal energy of which its presence here and now is a statistically determined resolution.  Our particles are the distillations of a homogeneous energy that suffuses and pervades the entire universe.  In this context the heretofore unchallenged claim that the human organism is “only itself” and exists radically independent of other material entities, suddenly becomes a highly questionable proposition.  How much more so does the claim that the “self” — which arises from the merger of the passing urges of the individual organism — is permanent and is capable of existing independently, lack credibility.

As we can see in Bohm’s propositions quoted above, science is beginning to speak in terms that are remarkably consistent with the worldview implicit in the Buddha’s recommendations for practice.

Relativity and quantum theory, in fact, provide excellent illustrations of this strange world [of the Buddha] so contrary to common sense.  In the Buddha’s universe a permanent, separate self is an illusion, just as substance is an illusion to the atomic physicist.  Distinctions between an “outside world” and an “inner realm” of the mind are arbitrary.  Everything in human experience takes place in one field of forces which comprises both matter and mind.  Thought and physical events act and react upon each other as naturally and inescapably as do matter and energy.  … As Einstein described matter and energy solely in terms of the geometry of space-time, the Buddha describes matter, energy and mental events as the structure of a fabric we can call consciousness. His universe is a process in continuous change — a seething sea of primordial energy of which the mind and the physical world are only different aspects.[8]

How does the “self” change?

While I believe it has become abundantly clear that there is no separately existing “immortal soul” as the western tradition has projected since Plato, the Buddhists have to acknowledge that the changeability of the “self” which they adduce as proof of its impermanence, is only possible because there is an agent of change that is resident in the same organism.  That agent represents the activation of human intelligence with its undeniable moral clarity, and of the conatus with its irrepressible drive to live, to bring the “self” to heel, and eventually to transform it, drop by drop, into a generous and compassionate moral force in a world of perishing beings.  What exactly is it, then, that changes the “self.”

It is the very same self, whose intelligence allows it to compenetrate itself from within, render itself totally transparent, and activate a potential derived from the living self-emptying energy of creative transcendent matter, LIFE, coiled in the conatus at the very center of its own life that effects this change.  There is only one “self,” and it is capable of doubling back on itself, assessing itself with its own resident resources and applying its intentionality — drop by drop — to the reduction of the unconscious self to obedience.  There are not two selves.  The belief that what effects change is an Absolute Self that is metaphysically distinct from the human self and exists alongside it is a fallacy.  There is a transcendence to the human self that might allow that projection to gain purchase.  But it is precisely the total compenetration of LIFE’s creative material energy resident at the core of the material human organism that is activated in the process of personal transformation.

Aquinas would say that “the Primary Cause only works through secondary causes.” The collaboration is seamless, and therefore the agencies are indistinguishable.


[1] Joroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, U. of Chicago Pr., 1971, Vol. 1 p. 30

[2] Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Translated by Holmes. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Ed. by Roberts et al. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <;.

 [3] I am referring to authors like Galen Strawson who explores “panpsychism” in Mental Reality, MIT press, 1994.

[4] Curt Stager, Your Atomic Self, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2014, p.246

[5] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge, London & NY, 1980, p. 12.

[6] Ibid., pp. 13-14. (emphasis in the original)

[7] Ibid., p. 14

[8] The Dhammapada, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Berkeley, 1985, from the introduction, pp. 80-81


Work in a Material Universe

3,600 words

This blog is dedicated to elaborating the social implications of a new set of premises about the nature of reality that modern science has helped us establish.   After 500 years of careful observation and critical analysis we are now fairly certain that we live in an exclusively material universe.

That wasn’t always true. We used to believe that reality was dominated by and could only be understood as idea, an immaterial product generated by an immaterial substancespirit-mind — and that the entire universe was the result of a Spirit-Mind’s insertion of a multitude of self-reflective immaterial ideas into a formless plasma called matter.

That unchallenged assumption which molded our thinking for thousands of years, has been overturned in our times.  It is a radical inversion that has amounted to a complete reversal of our image of reality and our scheme of values. Trans­cen­dent phenomena like human consciousness, whose “obviously immaterial” characteristics were once taken as prima facie evidence for the existence of spirit-mind and an entire other world where spirits originated and to which they were destined to return, are now, without losing anything of their quality as phenomena, accepted as functions of this one material world. There is no other world.

Of all the implications of our new understanding, this is the one that is the most relevant to our lives: there is no other world.

Being and work

Science has discovered that all of reality — everything — whether in the form of particles or force-fields, and regardless of its level of structural and operational complexity, is comprised of a homogeneous material energy. To be, in other words, is to be matter. Based on that central fact, material energy is, in corollary fashion, also responsible for the by-products of its time-driven dynamism: (1) a conatus or drive for self-preservation observable in each and every living organism, and inferred to exist in some form in every particle of material energy, making survival (existence) an innate and insuppressible urge; (2) evolution, defined as an adaptive mechanism driven ultimately by the conatus that guarantees matter’s continuing existence despite the changing environmental conditions that impact its survival; (3) a sense of the sacred arising spontaneously in human beings whose innate self-con­scious desire to exist, springing also from the same conatus, reverberates in an insuperable appreciation for and desire for union with the projected source of existence, material energy, LIFE, as a guarantor of survival.

Because to be-here is the inner dynamism that constitutes its very reality, everything matter does and becomes is a reflection of its existential bearing. Every living organism of whatever kind and at whatever level of complexity or ability to act is driven to survive because and only because it is made of matter. Everything it pursues and everything it does, whether in action or at rest, is a question of continuing to exist. It ultimately defines work.

Life from LIFE

Living organisms openly display dynamic characteristics which may not be perceptible in inanimate matter before it has been drawn up onto the plateau of life — the most revealing of evolution’s stunning achievements. Matter’s energy even at the most primitive levels must possess in dormant form the potential for what it does at the level of life. Nothing comes from nothing. Hence we say that matter is a dynamism driven by LIFE whose potential is released through the aggregations and complexifications achieved in the process of evolutionary adaptation.

These evolutionary developments are observed occurring throughout pre-life as well, first in the construction of the elegant table of the elements and, later, in the emergence of ever more complex molecules. These innovations reveal matter’s communitarian nature: matter achieves survival by unifying and re-arranging its separate particles and forces.

The process of evolution by unification and complexification continues at the level of life. Very early in earth’s geologic history unicellular organisms invented sexual reproduction and discovered the survival power of multicellularity and the division of roles within the resulting organism. Both advances involved the enlistment of many individuals in the pursuit of a common benefit; both measures enhanced survivability exponentially. Multicellularity, in turn, seems to have been taken up as a paradigm for species’ societies at all levels. The congregation of individuals and the distribution of roles and functions within the survival community proved to be the most effective strategy for the continued existence of the individuals of a species. All individual organisms survive communally with other members of their own species and also, symbiotically with members of other species. Commonality is a function of the unity of material energy. Communal survival activity shared among individual organisms is work. Work’s communal, collaborative nature is aboriginal: it is both the source and the result of 14 billion years of material evolution.

This communal character stands in sharp contrast with the exaggerated individualism evoked by the Platonic paradigm.   The separate soul of Plato’s imagination was quintessentially solitary. If it was to liberate itself from the dungeon of the body and its corruptions, it had to do so alone. There was no communal “salvation” in the Platonic system. A mother could not save her thieving son, nor a village its drunken idiot. Family and clan lost whatever survival significance they may have had in a material universe, because in Plato’s universe the world where survival was really won was another world reached only by dying — a world of bodiless spirits, where the relationships spawned by bodily reproduction were meaningless. Entrance into that other world required the death of the body along with all its genetic connections to family and clan. The only saving connection was with the impersonal rituals of the Church. The Church took the place of all natural communities.

Work as a function of existence

In a material universe, however, collaborative work is the direct result of the insuppressible urgings of the conatus in the real world and therefore is part of the line-up of characteristics that are found wherever material energy is found. They are corollaries of existence. It is precisely because all matter is innately driven to survive, that all matter is also collectively active in the pursuit of its continuance. That activity is work. It is a universal expression of the dynamism of the conatus and I claim it is a feature of all of reality.

[A note: Since my interest in this reflection is work as a human activity, my terminology will reflect that. But I want to state clearly at the outset that there is no intention to exclude non-human reality from the analysis or the conclusions. Work is a dynamism for continued existence that is natural to all material reality. There is evidence that at the quantum level, matter is proactive in the genetic adjustments neces­sary for the adaptation of the living organism to its environment. If that is true, it means that evolution itself is the result of work.[1]]

Human Consciousness. Human self-awareness represents another astonishing plateau in evolutionary development, responsible for characteristics that seem not to have existed in any prior life-form, analogous to the way life did not appear to have been present in earlier material entities that were not alive. But following out the analogy, and faced with mounting evidence of the presence of complex consciousness in animals other than human, we are compelled to attribute some dormant potential for consciousness to the very quanta packets of energy that constitute the building blocks of everything material in our world. Teilhard de Chardin called it the “interiority” of matter.

Some modern philosophers, like Galen Strawson, have suggested this feature of reality be called panpsychism. The meaning of the term is contained in its etymology: “everything,” pan, is “mental,” psych-. In other words, similar to our judgment about the presence of LIFE dor­mant in inanimate objects, mind is present as a dormant potential existing in all material reality because all psychic phenomena of whatever kind are clearly the products of material activity coming from organisms that are all and only comprised of and nourished by exactly the same quanta of material energy that constitute everything else in the universe. The data of daily observation, in this regard, is so universally corroborative of this conclusion that we are confident of it even though we have not as yet determined what mechanisms are employed in the activation of that potential. The simple fact of the matter is that consciousness exists, and there is nowhere else it could have come from except this world’s matter.

Desire. The full flowering of mind, most evident in the human species, reveals the intense appetitive nature of the conatus. With the evolution of higher consciousness it becomes clear that the conatus was not just a mechanical drive, a blind and passive reflex, but rather a living thirst, a passionate self-conscious hunger to be here that when satisfied fills the organism with ecstatic joy, and when thwarted, with dejection and despair. This nuances our understanding of the nature of work. Work is not only a reaction to the animal instinct to stay alive, it is a response to the desire for existence.

The human species’ conscious awareness of the inevitability of death is an aspect of this mental phenomenon. It adds a special dimension to the human conatus. The human instinct for self-preserva­tion necessarily extends its preoccupations to the place where the ultimate threat to the organism is perceived to reside. Hence the human conatus is necessarily addressed to transcending death. LIFE is assumed to have a source. Given the imperiousness of the conatus, desire for union with that source is not avoidable for the human organism. That means religion or its equivalent is natural and spontaneous; it springs from the very instinct for self-preserva­tion.  Work is the active application of that instinct.

This passion to possess existence through union with its source is a response to the Sense of the Sacred. The reflexive awareness of this appetitive relationship to existence generates the peculiar communal response called religion. Religion is work like any other, only clearly focused on the pursuit of that aspect of the conatus’ goal that reaches beyond daily survival. Thus religion must be understood as a function of matter’s existential bearing, bound up with work and the very destiny of the human individual stemming unavoidably from its being a material organism facing death whose innate instinct is to be-here. That internal contradiction is elemental to humankind and explains its unique sense of disconnect with the natural world.

Religion or its equivalents are natural and unavoidable. Insofar as work is the emanation of the conatus, in the case of humankind that conatus and its genetically driven activity is necessarily suffused with the passionate desire to ensure that the organism continues existing endlessly, because at any other terminus, death would give the lie to the conatus. It is not surprising, then, that human work would extend its reach beyond securing shelter and the day’s food. We can say a priori, that virtually any human endeavor that goes beyond securing those basic survival needs, contemplates projects that in one sense or another appear to guarantee the conatus’ ultimate goals, whose most fundamental characteristic is endless existence. These activities are the equivalent of religion and can take almost any form.

Religion, in this scheme of things, then, is only the most formally labeled and socially acknowledged example of this uniquely human pursuit of immortality. It is not difficult to identify others; they are myriad: all achievements that are believed to linger in human memory offering a kind of life beyond death, monumental projects including the magnification and ascendancy of the nation, military and economic conquests, academic, artistic, literary and athletic achievements, the abasement and exploitation of others for the purposes of asserting one’s or one’s tribe’s superiority, fame derived from any source, competitive activities specifically designed for creating distinction and recognition, the superfluous accumulation of goods, power, influence, land, capital, money. Animals do none of these things, because none of them are necessary for survival. These all speak to the attempt to extenuate and amplify individual existence beyond one’s limited “size” and location in the time-line of social history. I would put the perennial drive toward empire on the part of nations in this category of ersatz religion. It is an attempt to achieve immortality, and individuals identify with empire as their own participation in immortality. Empire is not only a pursuit of the elite.

If religion in our day no longer fires the imagination with hopes of immortality, it’s not because humankind has lost the hunger for endless existence. It’s just that, having decided that religion’s narrative lacks credibility, people have turned to other endeavors as more realistic substitutes. Whatever else has changed, the innate insuppressible human passion for endless life has not, and work as the emanation of that passion, will always tend toward securing it. Hence work must also be understood — and judged — under the rubric of man’s sense of the sacred as the pursuit of transcendence.

The dangers here are real. The perennial tendency of nations to take conquest and domination of others as a sign of superiority, is one of the principal substitutes for transcendence. The unabashed admiration on the part of most readers of history for the great empires and their accumulation of wealth, power and territory, suggests that the futility of seeking that kind of ascendancy has yet to be appropriated and internalized. There seems little chance that a political dynamic built on any other purpose will be put in place anytime in the near future.

Work in a Material Universe

Given this background, work has to be seen as (1) a natural and necessary activity of material organisms in pursuit of survival, (2) necessarily having a community dimension not only stemming from the communal processes that characterize evolution but because human survival is not physically achievable by solitary individuals working alone and because the collaboration among individuals is itself constitutive of society giving work a defining importance for humankind. Work is also (3) necessarily a pursuit of transcendence: the individual is transcended through collaborative endeavors which identify the worker with the surviving community and the attempt to embrace the source of existence by mutual consent of the collaborators. It doesn’t matter what that source of existence is believed to be. Even if it is only “the memory of humankind.” These are all transcendent pursuits and should be assessed as such.

Work as survival. The primacy of survival activity — work — as the fundamental expression of the conatus means that the entire category of servile labor, necessarily the object of disdain and revulsion in our erstwhile dualist-spiritist universe, is revealed as completely baseless. There is no distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit. There is no sub-human, bodily labor distinct and separate from reason and therefore there can be no sub-human “carnal” people consigned to the eternal repetition of mindless tasks. Survival work is not only the responsibility of each and every human organism for its own sustenance, it is the very expression of the organism’s roots in matter which grounds its existential bearing and the equality among human individuals that shapes the community that survives by it.

Work and existence. By survival work the material organism is manifesting openly its acknowledgement of belonging to the totality of matter’s living energy, the source of confidence in the endlessness of its being-here. Hence work is more than mere physical exertion; it is a dynamic declaration of self-aware­­ness and self-accep­tance. It is the conscious embrace of materiality. The organism embraces itself precisely and unapologetically as a material organism and takes a profound satisfaction in what work achieves: organismic life for another day — food, clothing, shelter and human community built by cooperative collaboration. Work is the expression of and commitment to belonging fully to the totality that endures. And belonging to the community of matter is the surest guarantee of individual endurance.

Work as ascesis. Work can no longer be thought of as a punitive discipline, the result of and punishment for some ancient transgression of our forebears, and a liberation of the spirit from the flesh. Work is rather a carnal joy and a privilege: the opportunity to express our intimate participation in the source of existence itself: material LIFE. The principal reward that work provides — survival — is immediately confirmed by ancillary benefits that enhance the organism: a strong healthy body full of energy and enthusiasm for life; a positive disposition and self-esteem that prevents the onset of depression or despair that the awareness of death might otherwise engender; the sense of security derived from the palpable comradery, companionship and mutual support generated by working cooperatively with others for the survival of each and all.

Far from being the whip that begins the process of liberating the spirit from the dungeon of the flesh, work in a material universe allows the material of the human organism to realize its full capacity to bring resident reason and spontaneous compassion born of material empathy to interface with the matter that work is transforming. Mirror neurons, the physical source of our empathy, are pure matter. We are all pure matter. The work worked and the working worker. The weight of matter borne is no longer a crushing burden that breaks my carnal will and forces compliance with my spiritual soul, but is rather a sibling’s touch that evokes in me a creativity not unlike that of an artist, who in elaborating what his vision reveals, may see a potential that no one knew was there. It’s like clay molding clay. The resulting mutually compenetrating engagement is explosive. Hesiod noticed certain workers got it right: “… they do their work as if work were a holiday.”

Manual labor in particular, which involves the intimate and continuous contact between my body and the matter under elaboration, becomes an occasion for the acknowledgement of the most important relationship of all: of the material energy which I am and the material energy that constitutes everything in the cosmos. It is one and the same. I AM THAT! This sense of intimate oneness with all that IS — LIFE — can serve to sustain a sense of one’s secure belonging to existence that has always been the great goal, the desideratum, of ascesis since before the advent of Christianity.

Of course all this assumes that work is guaranteed its primary and constitutive goal: survival.   Justice for the worker first and always means that work’s fundamental existential bearing is not frustrated.

Survival as a community effort

The significance of this new paradigm for the structuring of just and fulfilling work relationships hardly needs to be elaborated. First of all it reveals the class system that continues to divide work along servile physical lines to be baseless, demeaning and inherently destructive of the integrity of the human organism. Whatever needs to be done to secure survival is a responsibility that devolves upon everyone. If work is divided among the members of the community it is done for efficiency and convenience, not as a reflection of some putative quality difference among human beings, much less some illusory distinction between matter and spirit.

That some people are so wealthy that they never have to work is not a “blessing,” it is a travesty.   And those who intentionally pursue careers that will free them from the onus of physically providing themselves with food, clothing, shelter and community have entirely missed what it means to be human.

This has a primary application in the equality of men and women despite the obvious role differences established by their bodies. The female organism is not “more carnal,” more subject to emotional needs for being the place of gestation of offspring. All human organisms are equally capable of assuming all the roles in a complex society. Male-female role differences may be established by convention but they always remain conventional; there is nothing necessary about them. Reproduction is an instinct and function of all organisms. Indispensable genital equipment and efficacious function are features of every individual body, male and female. To heap burdensome and self-effacing tasks on one and not the other is a profound injustice, and may be the result of conscious exploitation. Platonic dualism lent itself to exactly such distortions of humanity.

In the case of children, the development of the rational function should no longer be given such priority as to entail the suppression or disregard for the wholeness of the human organism. Children’s emotional balance, ability to relate to others, predisposition to sense their unity as material organisms with other species of life and more primitive forms of matter’s energy, should be given as much emphasis as the development of their rational abilities to control the outside world by logical cerebration and emotional distance. The child should be educated to empathetically relate in organic material solidarity to whatever part of reality she/he will be later asked to manipulate and control with their work.

Earning a living: the division of labor in complex society

This topic — the division of labor in complex society — brings together all the contradictions that come from our tortured history.   I believe our materialist paradigm can offer new insights into how to resolve the problems that Platonic dualism bequeathed to us.   Having established the premises, future posts will begin reflecting on what this may mean for the future of work in a material universe.


[1] Cf McFadden and Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Random House, NY, 2014, pp. 219-221.