“Catholics”

A Reflection on the Novel by Brian Moore

2,500 words

By Tony Equale

Brian Moore’s novel, Catholics, was published in 1972. It was made into a movie for TV starring Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard and aired in the US and Canada in the seventies; it was reissued in VHF and DVD in 2004 and is now called “The Conflict.” The book was reprinted in 2006 by Loyola Press and sports a hefty introduction by Robert Ellsberg, the editor of Orbis books.

The tale is set in some unspecified time in the future after two more Ecumenical Councils have been held and the Catholic Church has solidified the changes initiated by Vatican II and even gone beyond them in the same progressive direction. At the current moment Catholic dialog with Buddhists about beliefs they share has reached such a point that any regression into pre-Vatican II practices would adversely affect the efforts of the Vatican to proceed toward unity.

But word has come to the General of the Albanesian Order in Rome that members of his congregation living in a monastery on a remote island three miles off the coast of Kerry in Ireland, have not only been making a Tridentine Liturgy available to the people on the mainland, but that Catholics have been coming by the thousands, some in charter flights from far off lands, to participate in the traditional rituals. Additionally, the monks recently changed the location to nearby Coom mountain on an historic landmark of resistance to the British called “Mass rock;” it evoked a sense of rebellion and added to the interpretation that this was a massive conservative protest against the modernizing policies of the Official Church.

A priest of the order, Father James Kinsella, played by Martin Sheen, is sent to the Island to order the monks to stop. Kinsella is a young Irish-American who dresses in military surplus clothing that evokes the Latin American revolutionary priests whom he openly admires. He carries a letter from the Father General in Rome addressed to the abbot, directing that the liturgical rituals are to return to the form mandated by the Official Church. Ultimately, after hours of exchange on the Island with all concerned — the bulk of the novel — the abbot submits and enjoins obedience on all.

Anachronism

The novel is obviously dated. Its publication in 1972 is a clue to the prevailing attitudes at the time of its writing which was certainly earlier. Vatican II was barely finished.   The Papal Encyclical of 1968 upholding the ban on contraceptives may not even have been issued when Moore conceived his story.

At the time, there was an anguished backlash against the liturgical reforms which many believed significantly changed the focus of Catholic piety. The Council had de-emphasized the worship of “God” in the Eucharistic species in favor of the formation of Christian communities of love as the real locus of God’s presence. The Eucharistic meal became a sign of family rather than a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross. 500 years of closed, anti-Protestant, Catholic insistence on the “real presence” was abandoned for an open-armed invitational posture toward Catholicism’s “separated brothers” which included an acknowledgement of the symbolic nature of the sacraments. To those unfamiliar with theological nuances, it was not a mere shift in emphasis as claimed, but a complete reversal of direction.

If the changes clearly laid down by the Council had continued to develop along the lines initially established, perhaps the long-range aftermath would have been as Moore anticipated. The openness might have reached out beyond Christianity to “other” traditions, perhaps even contemplating union with Buddhists. But, as we all know, it did not. The Encyclical Human Vitae turned out to be the harbinger of a one-sided Vatican take-over of Conciliar reforms that virtually stopped any progressive development dead in its tracks.

Moore’s futuristic exaggerations, however, should not be dismissed just because they never materialized. I believe the novel is important as an historical landmark, for in fact it represents the mindset at the end of the sixties and accurately depicts the reactionary attitudes that supported the conservative counter offensive by the Vatican apparatus under the leadership of two intransigent popes spanning over forty years.   What we have today in the Catholic Church is the result of that backlash driven by the mentality ascribed to Moore’s monks and the people who flocked to their masses. The book in its time represented a trenchant rejection of Vatican II. Reflecting on the issues as the novel explores them gives us the opportunity to analyze matters as if looking at a photographic negative, but one that nevertheless gives an accurate picture of past, and now present, prejudices. For the real future that actually developed out of the Council — the reactionary alternative — is what we are living with today.

Back to the story

In traditional Vatican fashion the novel imagines Kinsella being given plenipotentiary powers authorizing him to assume control of the monastery and coerce compliance in the event of a refusal to cooperate. Refusal to cooperate is exactly what he finds when he gets there. The monks to a man are ready to disobey Rome and continue providing the sacraments “the old way” as before. His sharp confrontation with the community is blunted when he gets support from an unexpected source, the abbot, Tomás O’Malley, played by Trevor Howard.

O’Malley turns out to be the central figure in this bi-level story that at first seemed to be examining Catholic liturgical reaction but quickly turns to the more agonizing topic of the abbot’s state of soul. For we soon learn that O’Malley has lost his faith. The overarching theme of the novel then morphs into a conflict of impossible and terrifying choices: Can a monk be an atheist? … can there be Christianity without God? We learn from the private conversation between O’Malley and Kinsella, that the abbot’s support for the regressive practices of his monks is ironically driven by a guilty compassion: he does not want to deny the people the consolations of the Catholicism that his atheism rejects. The irony is profound. An abbot who does not believe in God feels compelled to promote an archaic, superstitious ritual that educated Christians and the Vatican no longer accept as valid, simply to protect the uneducated from disillusionment.

How did this impossible anomaly ever come to be? O’Malley admits he lost his faith when he visited Lourdes forty five years earlier as a young priest. He was appalled at the delusional devotion of the people who came to Lourdes in droves hungry for miracles. “There are no miracles,” says O’Malley emphatically. The eagerness of the Church to capitalize on the peoples’ misery sent him reeling. “It took me a year to come out of it.” You can palpably feel his support for his monks’ efforts wane when Kinsella suggests that the great crowds coming to Coom mountain were precisely like the pilgrimages to Lourdes. “No,” insists O’Malley in a rare show of defensiveness, “not Lourdes. Never Lourdes. We are not offering miracles. There are no miracles!

Later, Kinsella having gone to bed, O’Malley finds his monks gathered in the chapel and has a heated exchange with them over the Eucharist. The abbot’s rejection of miracles is directly challenged. The transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is repeatedly called a “miracle” by the monks and any other position “heresy.” Thus the dilemma: the abbot who would put the consolation of the people above all else, including the truth, is now forced to confront this deception in the case of the monks in his care. The monks think he believes and would be devastated to learn that he did not. But he cannot feign belief without shattering his own integrity. He avoids making any declaration about the matter and peremptorily sends them to bed.

The next day as Kinsella prepares to leave, O’Malley admits that in his own personal life he had forestalled such a cataclysm by personally refusing to pray. We learn that this is an idiosyncrasy of the old priest, his own personal equation. It is the act of prayer that stands at the very center of the conflict for him. He knows if he attempts to pray he will disintegrate; for O’Malley, prayer implies belief in the God of miracles.

Enter Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg, in a singularly obtuse introduction blurred by his own atavistic ideological preferences, misses the point entirely.  While he is busy sympathizing with the monks by quoting a 1988 statement of Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) about peoples’ need for “the Sacred” (meaning precincts and rituals set off from the “profane”), he seems unaware that the “atheist-priest” and “Christianity-without-God” question raised by Moore’s Catholics is the truly significant issue.  The question had been asked before by other novelists like Dostoyevsky indirectly in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, but it was asked directly and in exactly the same form by Miguel de Unamuno in his short novel San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, written in 1930.  Ellsberg doesn’t refer to it.

Unamuno’s Don Manuel is the parish priest of a small village in Spain; like O’Malley he is an atheist. But he recognizes the power of the religious myths to assuage the anguish of the poor whose desperate struggles to live are destined to be frustrated at every turn. Their only hope for happiness is heaven. The parish priest no longer believes the myths of the afterlife but encourages his people to believe in them and enjoins his assistants to accompany him in the deception for the sake of the people. His love and compassion for the people become legendary. At his death the bishop initiates procedures to have him canonized.

Moore’s O’Malley is like Don Manuel. Both are priests with responsibility for others; both recognize the consoling power of the myths of Christianity; both are determined to protect their people from disillusionment — by deception, if necessary — but neither believe any part of it. Unamuno grasps the poignancy of it all: he calls Don Manuel, “martyr.” Moore’s Abbot, for his part, confesses to Kinsella that when he tries to pray it puts him in a null state which he describes as “hell.” There­fore he does not pray. “Not for many years,” he says. Given that state of affairs it is O’Malley’s personal martyrdom that ends the book. For in order to keep disillusionment from destroying his little flock of monks, he kneels with them to pray — the ultimate deception — something he knows will destroy him. For O’Malley, to pray is to declare belief in miracles.

critique

I part company with the unstated premises of the writers we have looked at in this reflection. Unamuno and Moore, in my opinion have each drawn a character who turns out to be almost identical despite the differences in geography, language, culture, time. And well they might, because they have both started from the same assumptions and traditions that have ruled universal Catholicism at least since the middle ages. And what they call atheism is only atheism because it rejects those assumptions. I also reject those assumptions, but I am not an atheist.

Both assume the same anthropomorphic “God” whose imagery was first provided by the Hebrew scriptures. This is the God of miracles. Even creation was described in Genesis as a miracle. There was, after all, no natural reason for the universe to arise. It appeared because it was designed by the divine imagination and freely willed to occur outside of the natural order.

Once “God” was established as the polar opposite of the natural void and chaos which “he” transformed into cosmos by his creative action, the separation between “God” and creation — the natural and the supernatural — was set in stone. “God” lived in another world; he worked upon this world the way a Craftsman works ad extram on his materials. Any contact with the world had to be a miracle, an unnatural irruption of the sacred into the profane. Those therefore who sought union with God were asking for a miracle, for they were asking for the natural order of things to be suspended. They wanted “God” to come to where “he” did not belong.

All of the Hebrew “God’s” interventions were miracles: first there were the miracles of the Exodus; then in the NT, the virgin birth, the incarnation, Jesus’ works of healing, and of course the resurrection. Thereafter, as the Church settled into its role in society, its stock-in-trade was miracles: the miracle of incorporation into Christ by baptism, the miraculous forgiveness of sins through the priest’s words in confession, the miracle of transubstantiation at mass, and the daily imprecations for miracles: for healing, for economic security and success, for personal rehabilitation, for national ascendancy; for victory in war, for the release of “souls” from purgatory. To be a Catholic was to live under the protective arch of a “divine” institution that had the ear of the God of miracles. Of course, in such a world, to attempt to even contact “God” was to ask for a miracle. Hence O’Malley could not pray.

For there to be a “sacred” in that universe, there had to be a “profane.” Ellsberg’s introduction reveals his own belief in the sacred / profane dichotomy. His long quote from Ratzinger features the Cardinal’s promotion of “that splendor which brings to mind the sacred,” and his lament that the modernizers “have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life.” Ellsberg quotes Flannery O’Connor’s reaction to the liturgical reforms: “if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” These sentiments in almost the same words are articulated by Moore’s believing monks, though not by the atheist O’Malley whose obvious preference — given the choices available — is to side with Kinsella. And so he orders the monks to stop.

The significance of the novel’s dénouement in the eventual alliance between the atheist abbot and the modernizing American social activist will not be lost on the perceptive observer. These silent narrative equations will lead the unsuspecting reader to conclusions that have never been articulated or analyzed.  Given the premises, a black and white conclusion is all we are allowed.  You can’t have “God” without miracles.

Ellsberg does not like to be left choosing between black and white. At the end of the introduction, his attempt to wriggle out of the trap he placed himself in by his acceptance of the premises of Moore, Unamuno, Ratzinger and O’Connor, fails, as it has to, because it is a hope built on nothing at all. “Is it not possible,” he asks ingenuously, “to opt for both relevance and sacred mystery? Openness to the world and a passion for truth?”

My answer is no! Not unless you abandon your insistence that “truth” means a God of miracles who paradoxically must break into our world unnaturally because we have decided he does not belong here naturally. The very fact that indeed, as O’Malley accurately observed, there are no miracles, should be enough to prove to anyone not blinded by fairytales, the kind of “God” that there really is, and where our sense of the sacred comes from.

“God” is the material LIFE that evolved us … in which “we live and move and have our being.”

Therefore, the language and gestures of ordinary life are sacred.

 

Tony Equale

July 28, 2017

Advertisements

Obedience and the doctrine of “God”

 2000 words

Religion in the West has come to us in the forms practiced by the powerful societies that ruled our part of the world eons ago. The enormous geographic extent and longevity of the Roman Empire accounts for its influence on what religion was able to survive into subsequent eras. The fact that Christianity predominates in the West, and through Christianity that the ancestral Judaic tradition has been preserved, is due exclusively to Rome. Rome outlawed and systematically exterminated not only any and all rivals to Christianity, but also all versions of Christianity that could not co-exist with the one embraced by the emperors. The Jews were a strange exception: simultaneously protected and persecuted, their existence and their torment alike were integral to the distorted Christian view of the world.

Christian supremacy existed throughout the Mediterranean well before the 7th century when the unexpected rise of the Arabs and their lightening conquest of the southern and far-eastern regions of the Roman Empire brought their own indigenous religious vision into the area once exclusively Christian and Jewish. By the 7th century Roman influence had already insured that “The Book,” the Jewish scriptures which Christianity had embraced as its own, was accepted as the only authentic source of the knowledge of sacred reality. The result was that the indigenous religion of the Arabs, what they called Islam, acknowledged the uncontested primordial truth of the Hebrew Scriptures to which they appended their Quran, prophecy and poetry written by Mohammed, as a theological addendum.

Thus the three religions that are native to the Western World — Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are all outgrowths of the same primitive doctrinal formulations of the Hebrew Scriptures. It should come as no surprise, then, that the central moral and theological themes of all three religions would be the same. They are all cults of obedience. The word Islam itself means submission. It all revolved around the Torah, “The Law,” the terms of the contract that Yahweh made with the Hebrews: “You obey my law and I will make you great.”

Essential to obedience is the assumption about the “nature of ‘God.’” This is also the same for all three. Stemming from the anthropomorphic imagery offered in the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by the mythic tales in the cosmogonies of the ancient Mediterranean, “God” was imagined as a “person” who gave commandments that humans were expected to obey. Obedience was a function of an interpersonal relationship in which the “will” of “God” was directly focused on obtaining the acquiescence of human beings expressed in their behavior. The import of obedience, ultimately, was its personal context: you were being commanded by a person who would punish you for disobedience; when you obeyed you also showed respect for that person … continued habitual respect resulted in a confluence of wills that would eventually develop into love.

There are two things to note, in this scenario. The first is that initially the psychological aspect was not the object of interest; the commandments were focused on literal compliance and the social harmony they effected. It was only later that attention was drawn to the act of “willing” as an interior event separate from the behavior it contemplated. Writers like Augustine who were obsessed with the self and its motivations, opened up a whole new interior landscape where the relationship with God was seen as a function of one’s intimate feelings and dispositions. Obedience was recognized not only as external compliance affecting society and meriting reward or punishment, but functioned on a different plane altogether, the plane of relationship; it was seen as the internal meshing of wills, God’s and yours, leading to a greater union of persons. This prioritizing of the interior dimension may be considered a seminal moment in the moral and religious development of the West.

Of course it was all dependent on the original premise about “God” being a “person.” It was because of this anthropomorphism that an external social non-compliance became an interior and inter-personal disobedience. Disobedience was not only a mistake, or a social infraction, it was a sin, a personal affront to the lawgiver that incurred “his” wrath; “God” was understood to be necessarily insulted and infuriated by the disobedience. This was the sum and substance of Augustine’s rationale for Original Sin and Redemption.

It accounts for the existence of the fear factor associated with religious codes of conduct in the religions of the book. But it also helps explain the direction religion took in Late Antiquity under the influence of the highly interior, self-scrutinizing and individualistic ascetical practices of celibate anchorites (monks and nuns), whose extraordinary lives were considered the apex of Christian perfection. Monasticism saw obedience not as compliance but as a meshing of wills, and therefore as a direct path to “divinization.” It was confirmed by the poetry of the nuptial relationship celebrated by the Song of Songs promoted in the third century by Origen of Alexandria. As the human will became more and more aligned with the divine will through obedience to God’s commands, it necessarily became more and more “like God,” which was the ultimate goal of Greco-Roman Christianity, theosis. Jesus’ call to Jews to “be like your Father” was seen as the harbinger of this new philosophical understanding of human destiny.

But the Platonists of the Mediterranean expanded Jesus’ appeal beyond mercy and forgiveness, compassion and generosity, and included the entire moral code because it was the will of God, and therefore it provided more fuel for the fire of theosis. The more obedience, the more the two wills became one. Your goal was to shed your humanity and become divine.

Hence, Eckhart’s counsel of “total detachment” was not hyperbole; he was serious. It not only represented the negation of the false ego, unconscious of its origins in Being, it was the reflection of the theosis goal set in the context of the discoveries of the latest Mediaeval science: “God” was Being. And since “being” embraces everything it is literally no-thing: it is everything and needs nothing. That such a detachment for a human being was absurd and impossible has not deterred many from trying, and doing harm to themselves in the offing. Their failure should have been a clue to the misconception that lay at the root of it all: that “being” was spirit and not matter. The ancients, unfortunately, had it stone backwards. Matter’s energy is being. We cannot be detached from matter because we are matter.

“God” is the LIFE of matter

What is most salient for us now, however, is that under the impact of the discoveries of modern science our understanding of the nature of God has changed — radically. “God” is not spirit but the LIFE of matter, its source and energy. And that has to have a profound effect on what we think Christian perfection is, and therefore what have been traditionally considered the practices that lead to it.

The position assumed in this blog is that the source of the human sense of the sacred — the source of the conatus, the will to live is the material energy that lies at the foundation of all things, responsible for their existence, their anatomy as evolved entities and their corresponding behavior driven by innate instinct. Material energy performs the role of Creator and Matrix in our world. It is not only responsible for everything there is, including evolution and the entities that have resulted from it, it also is that “in which we live and move and have our being.”

Some call that living dynamism “God.” I won’t quibble, but I prefer to call it LIFE, a word that evokes its reality as pervasive, generalized energy and its common possession by all things, without implying a separate entity that stands apart from them all. In this regard Eckhart’s remarkable “definition” of “God” must be highlighted for its congruence with the material energy I call LIFE:

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

Eckhart didn’t say that because he was a materialist, but because he was a spiritual monist. He saw everything that exists as participating in the very same act of existence — esse — God, as understood in the concept of being. Eckhart was, as a result, a pan-entheist. Neutral (materialist) monists are also pan-entheists for the same reason: all things participate in the same existential energy, LIFE, the source of existence.

Eckhart was an idealist (spiritualist) like everyone else before the modern era. “Being” for Eckhart was “spirit.” All of the spiritual practices and goals of Christian perfection that we have inherited from 2000 years and more of the Judaeo-Christian-Platonic tradition are all premised on “God” being spirit — an idea/person who related to us rationally. This “God” had a vision for our behavior embedded in a moral code that represented his WILL for us. Since God was a person with a WILL, we had to relate to him by bending our will to his. That made us like him. And that is what it meant to be “holy.” But things have changed.

If God is not what we thought he was, then the ancient traditional practices and goals we set for ourselves will no longer work and may even be damaging, as we suggested in the case of Eckhart’s detachment.   If indeed, as I contend, “God” is matter’s LIFE and NOT some separate spirit-entity with a will of his own, then an entirely new set of goals and practices that are consistent with what God really is and what we, as his offspring, really are, has to be identified. This is where the rubber meets the road. What does it mean to be “like God” if God is not a rational humanoid person with a “will” but rather the LIFE of matter? And what does it mean if, as we are saying, we ourselves are all and only living matter, the very “stuff” of LIFE?

We have a new task: to discover how to align ourselves with LIFE now that obedience no longer functions as a reliable guarantee of theosis, not because we no longer know what “God” wants (we probably never really knew), but more radically, because as Eckhart says, we have come to understand that God wants nothing. It is not a question of meshing our will with “God’s,” the issue has nothing to do with a particular “will.” LIFE wills to live in us … as us. We have to redefine humility when we can no longer use our ego-negating obedience to accurately define and effectuate it. And what does detachment mean when we are no longer deceived into think­ing that God is “spirit” and to be like God is to suppress or ignore our bodies?

I am confident that these and other associated questions about the ascetic practices appropriate to our new appreciation of reality will be answered as time goes on. But we can already say there is one central characteristic that will have to be present and operative in anything validly proposed: that we are already in personal, unassailable possession of the source and wellspring of our own permanent existence, rendering egoic self-protection and the appropriation of the goods and energies of others meaningless. Our alignment with LIFE, if it is authentic, must generate an enthusiasm for the expansion and enhancement of LIFE outside ourselves.  

We need to “practice” what will help us become like LIFE itself: generous, self-emptying, magnanimous, forgiving and exalting of others. Since we are made of LIFE we are instinctively nudged in that direction. What should we do? As a start, perhaps a few unsolicited acts of sheer munificence where nothing redounds to our self interest in any way, not even gratitude or recognition. If nothing else, it will tell us how far we are from being like the LIFE “in which we live and move and have our being” … what we really are … how far we have to go to be ourselves. It’s time we listened to ourselves and obeyed LIFE.

Tony Equale, June 2017

 

 

[1] From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201

EUREKA!

Guest Blog by Frank Lawlor

What author first opened up the world of the written word for you?  Perhaps this author was not called a writer at all. Perhaps he or she was a cartoonist. Cartoonists can say so much without words. For instance, when a character has an idea, the cartoonist puts a light bulb in the “dialogue box” over the character’s head. We know right away that the character has had a sudden and big idea because that is what the bulb suggests. We relate to this because we (although at the time we may have been only about 9 years old) have also had a sudden big idea. Over two thousand years ago a Greek author called such an event “a Eureka! moment”. It happened when he, a Greek philosopher/scientist whose name was Archimedes, suddenly realized why some things float. He happened to be in the bathtub when this happened. He got so excited that he jumped out of the tub and ran into the street shouting his joy in solving a big puzzle. The word he used was “Eureka”. Now we all recognize that feeling when we suddenly solve some puzzle or other. We too have a Eureka moment; although we might get dressed before telling everyone. Perhaps a genius is a person who has many such moments ; but we all do sometimes.

Recently I had a Eureka moment as I was having a very relaxing massage. I have always been im­pressed during a massage with the fact that our skin is an enormous organ incorporating millions of sensitive nerves over its entire surface.  We realize very vividly that the skin is the largest organ of our body. The deft rubbing of the hands of the massager very pleasantly stimulates the sensitive nerves in the skin and muscles most of which we are never aware of. The first mas­sage provides this realization as a Eureka moment. This was not my particular big idea today. Rather, it followed a new puzzle and led to a bright bulb solution.

First, the puzzle: Why is it astonishing that so vast an entity as our covering of skin can be so amaz­ingly experienced as good, precious, huge and a fantastic sensory treasure? Why only now should this experience be “new” when the skin is stimulated as a whole entity in itself ? Why, so late in a long life should such a basic sensation be so new and astonishing? This has to be an important puzzle because this “whole skin” experience must logically have been the most primitive and the first great sensory experience that we all had at the moment of birth, going as we all did from the experience of a warm liquid environment to the atmospheric world of cool evaporation. No wonder newborns cry! Following that trauma we all had what must frequently have been a very pleasant whole skin experience arising from our mother’s affectionate touching. No wonder infants learn so early to smile ! Do we humans lose that joy because our vast skin surface is as adults so seldom touched ? Or is it because, early in life we learn that our bodies are material realities and therefore inferior to the more important reality of our soul? Do we learn very early in life that the pleasure of being touched or even of touching is a forbidden pleasure for which we should feel guilty ? This idea came down to us from another ancient Greek philosopher/scientist, Plato, whose Eureka insight was the duality of all reality: material reality and a parallel spiritual reality. The first reality, matter, is evil, decomposes, gets dirty, causes pain and suffering, and finally it does the worst thing of all to us: IT DIES !  The spiritual reality proposed by Plato is the pure world of ideas, of perfection, of the real us, and it defeats material reality by being ETERNAL, never dying !  This ancient insight, however mistaken it may be, comes down to us as one of the central doctrines of Western religion and culture. These deepest cultural beliefs turn us away from the primal joy of our material bodies and their millions of delightful sensations. Therefore, as the puzzle and its solution suddenly merged, I was fortunate enough have a Eureka moment that I now cherish.

Thinking about this experience, I see more clearly how our Platonic belief system, even if accepted only implicitly as a cornerstone of our cultural world view, can restrict the intrinsic pleasure and appreciation of being a material reality.  I think that many people would still choose the Dualism of Plato despite the total lack of evidence that a parallel spiritual reality exists. Perhaps its promise of immortality is why it is believed by so many billions of us. Life is obviously our most cherished reality and its promised permanence can replace the horror of its cessation in death. For this reason the spiritual has become the supreme reality for so many of us. The promise of an eternal extension of our life in a perpetual state that knows no pain or sickness, sadness or death is just too powerful a premise to reject merely because it violates common sense and universal experience.

The abstract invention of Plato’s Spiritual Reality would seem to have defeated Nature in the sense that Nature presents us each with the inevitability of our own individual fate. However, I would contend that Nature itself meets this challenge with its own defeat of Death. If we look at our Planet’s history, the life we see so abundant all around us is the closest approximation to the “eternal life” promise of Plato’s idea. Life has existed on Earth for about 4 billion years. Life has outlasted the greatest mountain chains on the surface of the planet. Mount Everest is only the most recent “tallest” mountain. It is only about 600 million years old. Life has outlasted all of the mountains as well as the former oceans of Earth and the “once upon a time” continents that predated our present continents. Humble single celled photosynthesizing bacteria billions of years ago produced the oxygen of Earth’s present atmosphere. These bacteria live with us today even though each and every one of them only lives a few weeks. Our own species has persisted in life for over a million years.  Life itself is as close to eternal as our imaginations can encompass. This conquest of Life over Death is perhaps very abstract when faced with the concrete, easily imagined reality of our own personal death.  On the other hand, even the entire material reality of our own bodies is a permanent part of our planet and will persist in existence, often as a bit of other living beings, as long as our Solar System persists. Even then beyond our own solar system, no atom of our earthly existence will cease to find a place in the Universe.  Plato did not think of matter this way because Science had not yet developed the methods necessary to probe deeply into the properties of matter and energy.

Would Plato have bothered with his own Eureka moment which marked his invention of “spiritual” reality if he lived today? Would matter, as we now understand it, be seen by him as too inferior to be conceived as the instrument of life, of understanding, and of creativity ? In the past several hundred years Science has provided us with an enormous series of “Eureka !” moments which provide us with a different, scientific view of material reality.  A very basic insight that Science has given us is that all Life on Earth has evolved in an incomprehensibly long series of small modifications from a single proto-cell to the millions of more complex life forms ranging from single celled bacteria through the entire range of multicellular plant and animal life that covers planet Earth.  All of these forms of life are built up of living cells all of which demonstrate their common origin.  Trillions of cells make up a single human or a towering Sequoia tree. And additional trillions combine to make an Elephant or a Blue Whale. Each living cell is astonishingly alike in its size, internal “organs”, protective outer covering and in its superbly complex bio-chemical processes of nutrition, reproduction, metabolism, molecular composition and methods of recognizing, attacking and surviving disease.

In addition to all of these common features, all living cells incorporate into their central organ, the nucleus, a unique molecule which is responsible for the entire panoply of the features of life. This molecule is called DNA. This microscopic molecule provides the instructions for every detail of every living cell. It is a vast ”instruction manual” written in a chemical code which only recently has be decoded. Not only does this molecule provide all of the information for a cell to be a functioning part of a Rose Bush or of a Garter Snake or of a human but it also provides all of the tiny details that make one individual identifyingly different from any other individual of whatever species. This ’’individuality” has traditionally been attributed to “The Soul”.  All of this is common to all of life on Earth, despite the many differences that give each type of cell its unique functions as it supports the life of “its” organism.  The phenomena of unity and diversity is basic in the story of the Evolution of life and equally basic in the story of the unity that marks the reproduction and maturation of living matter. This aspect of the study of life deals with the study of the single fertilized cell from which multi celled organisms develop and the subsequent study of the process of development by cell diversification. A human is made up of over two hundred different kinds of cells: blood, liver, skin, brain, bone, antibodies, etc. etc.  All of these cells develop from one cell, diversify, and each variation reproduces its own kind of cell many times over during the life of the organism. This represents another kind of evolution mirroring the overall Evolution of all of life in all of its diversity.

In a sense, it is DNA which evolves; specifically the DNA in the reproductive cells is modified by the process of Evolution. This is the source of all of life’s ever increasing diversity. Amazingly, each cell in any organism contains the same DNA as found in all of the other cells of the organism. Since almost all cells have a life span much shorter than the life span of the organism, each cell must reproduce its self and in that process it must copy its DNA into the “daughter” cell.  The processes of life are enormously complex.

Plato did not have the advantage of this Scientific view of Life. If he had this insight we might ques­tion whether he would see Life as a duality rather than a most astonishing unity? I have attemp­ted here to give a feeling for the unity of all life. When we grasp this oneness of Life how can we logically propose or accept a basic duality?  If duality is the solution to any problem hindering the understanding of the nature of life, then what is the problem?

Frank Lawlor

Pine Island, Florida

Feb. 2017

Religion in the Modern World

1,657 words

Religion is a Gordian knot.  Its transcendent effects, always mysterious even when not horrifying, are so beyond our ability as a species to control that it seems entirely independent of us … like a demon or collective delusion that has taken possession of our minds.  Indeed many have decided that religion is simply not human and that it must change radically or we are better off without it.  And yet even these people remain in thrall to it, for despite their profound misgivings religion continues to intrigue and invite.

Others who also acknowledge religion’s destructive side claim to have seen enough of its benefits to feel differently.  Religion needs to change but they believe what is required amounts to little more than repairing the disconnect between religion as a ancient local phenomenon and the realities of modern global life.   Once that adjustment is made religion will prove to be the solution to the most perplexing problems that we face as a planetary species for it will provide us with a sustained sense of the sacred.  It was exactly such an optimistic assumption that I believe inspired Vatican II.  Fifty years later, however, even the optimists have conceded that as far into the future as the eye can see, aggiornamento, re-casting religion in a modern idiom” may still be discernible on the horizon, but it has not moved any closer to us.

Everyone is ambivalent.  Everyone finds religion a conundrum.

Both these groups agree that religion needs to change.  But even before getting into the details of what “doctrines” should change, we should notice that the difference between their perspectives is quite profound.  For the first is wary of religion precisely as  uncontrollable and a source of conflict, and would condition religion’s very existence on neutralizing its destructiveness and harnessing its power to human needs.  As far as they are concerned, therefore, anything that suggests that religion is beyond human control is unacceptable.  A supernatural religion, that is, one allegedly designed and revealed by “God,” by definition, is not human.  It cannot change.  Such a belief is itself the very source of religion’s conflictive nature for it puts problem doctrines beyond the human power to modify.  Religion must be subjected to rational control or it will continue to divide us and justify our worse sociopathic inclinations.   Such a demand for control strikes at the very heart of the religious imperative in the West: submission to “God.”  It is good to remember that the word “Islam” means surrender.  All the western “religions of the book” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — share that central dynamic.

The view held by progressive traditionalists, on the other hand, is that in its current form religion is an historical, culturally conditioned, social artifact and, while not denying that it comes from “God,” is fully human.  As a human phenomenon it can be trusted to evolve under the environmental pressures of a global society that no longer identifies with its local roots in history and culture.  Therefore the proper approach is to work within the institutional form that religion has assumed at any given point in time and encourage those influences that will change religion in the direction of the desired universalism.  (Why such a supposedly “human” religion has not already evolved on its own, however, is not explained.)

I want to pause at this point and allow the internal contradictions implicit in what we have observed so far be brought into clear relief.  They will help guide our reflections.

The first is that to speak of religion as a human artifact and simultaneously claim it was designed and revealed by “God” is a contradiction, unless you are operating with a concept of an immanent “God” whose presence and intentionality is materially indistinguishable from the natural world.   Only that kind of “God” could possibly be the divine source of a religion over which humans had total control.  Western “religions of the book” have never accepted such a pan-entheist “God.”  It is unlikely that they will suddenly do so.

Moreover, the very “sense of the sacred” that characterizes all traditional religion derives not from the immanence, but from the assumed  transcendence of “God.”  People believe that religion has the power to connect us to “another world” because it comes from a “God” who transcends the natural order.  It is precisely a “God” who is “other” that makes religion “sacred” and distinct from the “profane” world of our everyday lives.  It is that “otherness” that explains the additional energy that religion provides — “the sense of the sacred” — an energy that does not come from man, but from a transcendent “God.”  Control of religion by humankind is not part of this picture.

This brings us to a further anomaly.  Those who insist that religion is a purely human artifact still somehow expect that it will provide a sustained sense of the sacred without explaining howSince the sense of the sacred appears to come only from religion’s distinction from the profane, unless there is some other source, a sense of the sacred cannot be generated.   Aren’t the would-be controllers promoting an empty shell that may look like religion in name and ceremony but is hollow and self-serving?  Indeed, anything that fails to turn humankind’s gaze beyond itself — to something “other” than itself — cannot hope to sustain the selflessness that the “sense of the sacred” is supposed to evoke.  Without a transcendent “God” what will do that?

If a sense of the sacred is not possible without a transcendent “God,” it means that the energy that both groups hope to channel toward the solution of human conflict, is not something over which we can claim ownership or control.  If we could, it would not be authentically religious — it would not be from “God.”  Religious energy is a very special phenomenon, it is assumed, that comes only from religion, and religion is religion only because it comes from “God.”

This is the heart of the problem: the assumed transcendence of “God.”  Based on these premises a dialog among those genuinely interested in the modernization of religion will find itself at an impasse before it can even get started.  For the religious “naturalists” will insist on principle that any “sense of the sacred” must arise from the natural world; if there is to be change, the “sense of the sacred” cannot come from a supernatural “God.”

Even between traditional religionists of different persuasions who are convinced of the “supernatural” origins of the sense of the sacred, the transcendence of “God” is a stumbling block.  For the insistence that your own religion enjoys real supernatural contact, while others’ do not, forces you to disparage others’ sense of the sacred as only wishful thinking.  But it won’t work.  The uniformity of the phenomenon wherever it is found is too obvious.  It belies any attempt to distinguish them by origin.

The disputants find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.  For everyone must acknow­ledge that the religious energy — the sense of the sacred — of other religions, which is indistinguishable from their own, has to have the same origin.  Such an admission will equalize all religions as valid points of contact with “God.”  Reasonable as that may sound, it is more than some Churches will tolerate.  Roman Catholicism, for example.  The Catholic Church insists on its absolute superiority to all others.

Sed contra

The tangle of problems that surface in this preliminary scan of the issue are all tied together by a series of assumptions and premises about supernatural religion and its transcendent “God” that are, despite their antiquity and universality, simply untenable.  I contend that no religious dialogue can even begin unless we deny all of the premises embedded in the above “positions” and argue, that

(1) Our sense of the sacred is innate and natural.  It comes from the conatus of the living material organism and not from a “God” who dwells in another world.  Even those who do not believe in “God” have a sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred is indeterminate and can take virtually any form.  It can be distorted or denied but not suppressed; the attempt to suppress will just cause it to emerge in another form.

(2) Religion is a human social artifact which from its very inception was elaborated by the local community to control and focus the spontaneous human sense of the sacred.  It does not come from the ethereal revelations a transcendent “God” and it can be changed in accord with its mandate for the benefit of people.

(3) There is no metaphysical separation or distinction between the sacred and the profane.  Such distinctions as may still exist among us are the social residue of the practices of obsolete transcendent religions.  They are communal habits that will disappear under the tutelage of an immanent “God.”

(4) “God” is the unknown sustaining source of LIFE.  As such “God” is directly implicated in the perception of LIFE by the material organism and is, therefore, both the source and object of desire of the conatus.  There is no physically perceivable difference between what we mean by “God” and the energy of any living organism and that includes all human beings.  Whatever distinction may exist between them is relational in character (i.e., source-to-recipient / parent-to-offspring); it is cognitively implicit and materially indistinguishable.

Moreover, the fact that belief in a transcendent supernatural and historically revealed local humanoid “God” was used extensively, in the past,  by some people to justify their conquest and enslavement of others whose religious beliefs were vilified as “false,” adds to the suspicion that this was not an unintended unconscious mistake.  It is seen as purposeful prevarication in the service of domination, causing all conversation to be instantly terminated.  This approach simply won’t work.  It renders dialog impossible.  For me it is an indirect proof that it is based on false premises.  I am convinced that when we discover what is true, it will work.

 

The Big Picture

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

 This long 15K word essay was originally published in six separate sections in October and November. I am now re-blogging it for a week to allow for reading the whole thing in the proper order.  Afterward it will be permanently available as a “page” in the sidebar to the right.  Like a similar long review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos in 2012 published as “A Dalliance with Dualism,” the review is a vehicle for elaborating my own perspectives on the issue at hand. In this case what I am offering is my own “big picture.”   It might be categorized as a “Philosophy of Religion.”

As with all efforts to provide a rational basis — compatible with the discoveries of modern science — for what we have traditionally called “religion,” it cuts both ways, purging religion of elements that are clearly antiquated, erroneous and misleading, and challenging the unconvinced to look again at the depths from which our material universe wells us up into existence generating in us a sense of the sacred.  Above all the aim is to keep us from losing our sense of the sacred.

Also I think it can serve as a common ground for the unification of our knowledge of reality. There is, after all, only one universe. It is made of matter and we are its offspring.  We are all one thing … shouldn’t we expect there would be one way of understanding it all?

This essay represents another stab at a unified worldview — a synthesis — that might reasonably replace the obsolete Platonic one that we were formed in, and that all of us continue to wrestle with. This is the result of years of my own wrestling. I would love to get your feedback and have you share yours.

Tony Equale,  November 2016

1

It is not without some trepidation that one contemplates criticizing a “rocket scientist.” After all, it is believed that they are so far beyond the rest of us that we cannot hope to follow much less comprehend what they say; even to question them is pretentious.

Sean Carroll is a rocket scientist. His thumbnail bio found on his website reads:

I’m a theoretical physicist, specializing in field theory, gravitation, cosmology, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and philosophy of physics, with occasional dabblings elsewhere. My latest book, released May 2016, is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. (Dutton, NY 2016) My official title is Research Professor of Physics at Caltech.[1]

He is 49 and married.

I have just read Carroll’s long 440 page book The Big Picture. I would like to comment on it, but I wonder if I will be heard, not only by him, but by the general reader who may share the prejudices of our times that when rocket scientists speak on any matter whatsoever they are beyond challenge except by their own kind, and the rest of us had better shut up and listen.

Rocket scientists have the further unfortunate reputation of believing the popular hype about themselves. They are said to form a closed clique and restrict serious conversation to their own ilk who speak their jargon. Their preference for quantified data expressed in equations, over human language conveyed in grammatical sentences, adds to the impression that they live in a world other than ours. They are accused of believing that (1) only the things in their area of concern, using mathematical terms to express them, can be said to be really “true;” (2) matters of importance in other areas that are not quantifiable are also strictly speaking not verifiable and therefore cannot hope to achieve the designation of “truth” except in the practical sense of “working” within some limited area of applicability. But as far as “reality” is concerned, what is real is physics and chemistry.

People who attempt to apply scientific methodology and logical reasoning to non-quantifiable subject matter like biology, the social sciences and psychology, except for certain ancillary statistical procedures, are really dealing in “metaphor” not knowledge. What is considered “knowledge” in these areas works within the limitations of their applicability but no further. In the past that feature of “scientific” thinking whereby what is truly real can be reduced to the subject matter of physics and inorganic chemistry was called “reductionism.” Everything else was to one degree or another, illusion. Carroll’s blog uses a quote from Democritus as a sub­title: “In truth, only atoms and the void.” It is part of a larger quote that is usually translated: “There are only atoms and empty space; the rest is opinion.”

Carroll’s latest book The Big Picture ventures out of the strict field of physics and into the murky regions where the rest of us live and try to make sense of our lives. One would hope that he has decided to do so as one of us in our struggle to discover meaning, and not as a superior being who condescends to enter the shadow-world of the mathematically challenged to liberate us from our religious illusions.

Such a sentiment on my part is not empty paranoia. It is well known that some years ago Carroll explicitly turned down an invitation to speak at a conference because “he did not want to appear to be supporting a reconciliation between science and religion.” Granted that he was suspicious of the sponsoring Foundation’s motivation, his own independently antagonistic position denying any possible compatibility between science and religion a priori, is well documented and supports my misgivings. [2]

Given this background, informed readers may be forgiven for expecting that Carroll’s book, which purports to elaborate a science-compatible worldview he calls “poetic naturalism,” will simply be a more reader-friendly version of the same ol’ axe-to-grind: matter is a mindless mechanism and human life is a kind of virtual reality — an illusion — whose social expressions, like religion and politics, are metaphors that we impose upon it. We may be humored in our use of these quaint narratives because it’s all we can handle. But the condition for this concession from the rocket scientists is that we keep to our side of the line and stay out of their way.

Carroll appears to avoid the strictly mechanistic position, what he calls strong reductionism. “Strong reductionism,” he says,

not only wants to relate macroscopic features of the world to some underlying fundamental description but wants to go further by denying that the elements of the emergent ontology even exist, … consciousness is merely an illusion.[3]

Carroll’s characterization, using the word “strong,” allows him to distance himself from it without rejecting the concept entirely.

Against strong reductionism he proposes nothing less than an expanded definition of reality. Acknowledging that “we don’t as yet have a full theory of reality at its deepest level,” he sets up the parameters that will serve as the premise for poetic naturalism throughout the book:

Something is “real” if it plays an essential role in a particular story of reality that, as far as we can tell, provides an accurate description of the world within its domain of applicability: atoms are real, tables are real, consciousness is undoubtedly real. A similar view was put forward by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, under the label “model-dependent-realism.”[4]

Carroll’s efforts seem to be part of a recent tendency among philosophers of science to reopen the issue of the nature of matter. This trend questioning “strong” reductionism can be seen in Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book Mind and Cosmos, though Nagel seems to have identified no alternative but dualism.[5] Noam Chomsky in his 2015 book What Kind of Creatures Are We?  [6] says the “nature of matter” is a question unresolved since the days of Descartes and Newton. The final chapter entitled “The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden?” gives a thorough historical scan of the perennial dissatisfaction with the Cartesian (reductionist) view of matter. He cites the modern “pan­psychism” of Galen Strawson as a model counterpoint to the classic unjustified and unquestioned reductionism. [7] Thus Carroll is not alone in his reassessment.

The Hawking-Mlodinov book The Grand Design, however, is of another order altogether. Instead of eschewing strong reductionism, it seems to be doubling down on it even to the point, in my estimation, of jeopardizing the legendary careful procedures and limited claims that are associated with professional scientists. From the very first page of text where the authors cavalierly declare that “Philosophy is dead”[8] to the end of the book where a conjectured hypothesis called “M-Theory” whose unobserved and untested projection of “multiple universes” is adduced to “explain” the otherwise inexplicable fine-tuning of our universe (the basis of the strong anthropic principle), the prestigious Hawking seems hell-bent on eliminating any thought of “explanations” other than that of physics. “The multiverse concept,” they say, “can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.”[9] It seems that Hawking, like Carroll, had a prior agenda: an antipathy toward religion that is willing to sacrifice science’s hard-earned reputation in its service. “But if it [M-theory] is true, …” begins the conditional sentence that lays out the thesis, then the multiverse conjecture would reduce the strong anthropic principle to a weak version, and a universe like ours loses its uniqueness in an ocean of universes whose physical laws vary widely and wildly. Sooner or later one such as ours is bound to emerge. This is all hypothetical.

The observed universe is, so far as we know or could ever know, the only universe, although it may have predecessors. The idea of a multitude of other universes is not evoked by any observation, nor could it be, for these other universes would have no causal communion with ours. It is merely designed to fill a hole in certain scientific theories (such as in string theory in contemporary particle physics) that make many universes possible and therefore find it convenient to imagine all of them actual. With only one actual universe, and with no basis other than the limitations and predilections of the human mind to distinguish possible and impossible universes, we lack the conditions for a well-formed estimation of probabilities.[9a]

Possibly the most “far out” claim made by Hawking for “M-theory” is that it “explains” how matter can emerge spontaneously out of nothing:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going.”[10]

It’s not clear whether Carroll agrees with this or not. In a review of Hawking’s book published in the Wall Street Journal in 2010, Carrol said of M-theory and the multiverse:

This is a picture that has been put together by a number of theoretical physicists over the past couple of decades, although it remains speculative. Mr. Hawking’s own major contributions have involved the spontaneous creation of the universe “from nothing.” The basic idea comes straight from conventional quantum mechanics: A particle does not have some perfectly well-defined position but rather lives in a superposition of many possible positions. As for particles, the logic goes, so for the entire universe. It exists in a superposition of many possible states, and among those states is utter nothingness. The laws of quantum cosmology purport to show how nothingness can evolve into the universe we see today.[11]

The key word is “speculative.” While speculation has its place in science as in any other field of enquiry, the use of unproven guesswork as if it were an established conclusion in order to “prove” the definitive elimination of “God” as a reasonable cosmological possibility arouses in me the suspicion that the tail is wagging the dog. “M-theory” is given a scientific status that it does not possess in order to serve as bludgeon for the anti-religion agenda. Carroll acknowledges: “Whether this ambitious conception is actually correct remains unclear,” and adds, incisively in my opinion: “they [Hawking-Mlodinov] advocate ‘model-dependent realism,’ which asserts that the ‘reality’ of various elements of nature depends on the model through which one interprets them. This is an interesting approach to ontology …”[12] That sounds to me like sarcasm. But he may have changed his mind since he wrote that review in 2010 because his 2016 book embraces exactly such an “interesting approach to ontology.” If what is real can be defined by the categories of enquiry that we humans have devised, then philosophy is indeed “dead” and “being” is reduced to what the sciences can describe. Heidegger would be appalled.

How does Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” compare to all this? It is my opinion that the “naturalism” offered by Carroll’s book does not advance much beyond an arid “physicalism” that he clearly has not abandoned. I also believe he fails either to identify or to create an appropriate “poetry” that might accompany science with some degree of depth and validity — all the while assuring us that religion cannot be that poetry. In fact, it turns out that all he really means by “poetry” is any view of reality that is not “science:”

This brings us to the “poetic” part of poetic naturalism. While there is one world, there are many ways of talking about it. We refer to these ways as “models” or “theories” or “vocabularies” or “stories”; it doesn’t matter. Aristotle and his contemporaries weren’t just making things up; they told a reasonable story about the world they actually observed. Science has discovered another set of stories, harder to perceive but of greater precision and wider applicability. [13]

The “poetry” in “poetic naturalism” is sparse. But sparse can be forgiven if it is deep. What, then, has Carroll accomplished? I think it is at least fair to say that according to the attitudes he revealed in the writing of this book, he appears to elude the description offered by one of his blog respondents in 2009, who said that Carroll displays “the sneering condescension of self-con­gra­tu­la­tory superior-sounding people” … who “demand that we must all act as [they] do.” That characterization seems more applicable to Hawking than the Carroll of the Big Picture. If that is true, it is in fact quite deep. Whether or not it can translate into words that can serve as “poetry” for the rest of us, such a change of attitude is no small achievement.

*

It appears that Carroll is aware of all these objections. His book cannot be accused of active hostility to religion. But neither does he acknowledge that religion has any compatibility with science; he simply ignores it. He proposes to eschew the strong reductionist view as the privileged expression of truth and to substitute for it a “big picture,” much larger than the old, in which all the various ways of speaking about reality are acknowledged as equally valid and given their rightful place in the panoply of human enquiry and knowledge. This is not quite the capitulation it might appear to be, however. The final result is that while “reductionism” loses its arrogant claims to primacy and exclusivity, it is protected from interference from other world­views and retains its physicalist integrity. It is my opinion that it is a maneuver to keep religion and other non-mechanistic explanations out of cosmology. From my perspective that’s unfortunate. For I am going to claim and try to show that matter, far from being inert and passively mechanical, is a living dynamism, and that a satisfying and mutually supportive philosophic-religious synthesis compatible with science can be constructed on that foundation. I am going to show that a religion exorcized of its demonic elements by a cosmo-ontologically grounded theology can be integrated into a new synthesis as science’s “poetry.” “Poetic naturalism,” something Carroll bit off but could not chew, may still be a worthy and achievable goal.

Fundamentally Carroll says that each “discipline” or area of intellectual pursuit has its own vocabulary based on its own premises, axioms, principles and procedures that are valid within the domain of its applicability but not outside of it. That includes physics. In Carroll’s “big picture” physics supposedly no longer holds pride of place. For example, biologists are under no obligation to speak about LIFE in a way that reduces it to the mechanisms, dynamics, and structural possibilities described by physics and chemistry. The biologists’ starting point is LIFE as a given, and the development of their science is an elaboration of that premise. Biology need not entertain the possibility that the perception of LIFE is simply an illusion. Nor is it legitimate for physics to presume to sit in judgment on the validity of biology’s fundamental assumptions.

It is “philosophy,” as Carroll understands it in The Big Picture, that sits above and sets the boun­daries of the various sciences. Of course, it is not entirely clear what the principles, premises and procedures of this “philosophy” of Carroll’s might be, aside from his endless ruminations which are predictably based on scientific methodology like Bayesian logic and Peirce’s “abduction.” The allusions to philosophers, classical and current, which pepper the book, hardly compensate for his appalling Wittgensteinian disregard for what has gone before him. But we must at least acknowledge that his attitude is far less arrogant than Hawking and Mlodinow who declared flatly at the very beginning of their book: “philosophy is dead.” [14] Carroll in his 2010 WSJ review rightly excoriated them for that. “Our best hope for constructing sensible answers,” he said, “lies with scientists and philosophers working together, not scoring points off one another.” [15]

This holds true for all the “soft” disciplines, according to Carroll. Sociology and Psychology cannot be reduced to physics and chemistry. They each have their own area of applicability and, just as the use of the terminology and procedures of physics would be false and misleading if applied to these sciences, so too the terminology of Psychology and Sociology which acknow­ledge the indisputable role of “purpose” in human life, would be completely inappropriate if applied to the world of inert matter and its dynamics. Indeed, it seems to be “purpose” more than any other source of explanation that Carroll is most determined to keep out of the realm of the physical sciences, while at the same time justifying scientists’ use of those categories as explanations, “metaphorically”.

He thus sets up lines of separation between areas of human pursuit that are reminiscent of the “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) schema presented by Stephen Jay Gould in the 1990’s as a way of ending the dispute between science and religion. In Gould’s view, neither science nor religion should encroach on the other’s “turf.” He imagined each of them to be an independent “magisterium” functioning with its own premises, principles and procedures completely free of interference from the other; they are conceptually incompatible, therefore they are thoroughly incommunicable and mutually meaningless. Gould says:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.[16]

This “cease-fire” between science and religion, however, is purchased at a high price. It means that an ultimate unification of human understanding not only has not occurred, but now cannot occur because it has been precluded in principle. Specifically, it ignores the fact that reductionist science has no explanation for the existence of the universe itself, at best trying to justify the assertion that “it just is there and always has been” or that it was a “quantum fluctuation” that just appeared out of nothing, as if that were any more satisfying. It also dodges the criticism that after more than a century of trying, science has yet to explain either life or “mind” in reductionist terms, endlessly declaring that the allegedly soon-to-be-found explanations will prove to be strictly mechanistic and the macro appearances, illusions as predicted.

Hence, having suppressed enquiry into the possible valid relationship between science and religion, NOMA condemns the enquirer to live forever on two parallel tracks, having recourse to one or the other as the circumstances may require. The end result of this institutionalized parallelism is the sealing off of the various paths of human endeavor from one another and the eternal consignment of the human being to a divided understanding of the universe. We live schizoid lives because of it. The universe, I submit, is just one thing. And the human intellect is part of it — its genetic spawn. And unless you are a metaphysical dualist who insists that the human intellect, even though born of this universe, cannot possibly comprehend itself and its material matrix in the same metaphysical terms, you have to anticipate some ultimate unified understanding. Carroll seems to have surrendered physics’ candidacy for that role. Unfortunately, despite the absence of any formal academic consensus on the matter, NOMA has in practice become the accepted wisdom of our times enshrining an ungrounded tacit dualism. Philosophical synthesis has been despaired of in principle. Religionists are complicit in this intellectual irresponsibility, because NOMA, by implying that there is a separate source of understanding for the human mind — namely an imagined immaterial “soul” which belongs to an invisible category of reality called “spirit” — gives them full permission to hawk their discredited idea of the existence of a world other than this one, and sell access to it.

It is Carroll’s acknowledgement that there is a legitimate and even necessary place for “philosophy,” whose task it is to assign the boundaries of the disciplines, that provides a possible way out that someday might override Gould’s NOMA strategy. But Carroll’s limited application of his “philosophy,” and the absence of any adequate explanation of what that “philosophy” might be based on, makes The Big Picture little more than Carroll using his prestige to impose his own personal preferences on the situation … and his preferences hardly go beyond a slightly tamed reductionism and a wider application of the NOMA principle to other fields beside religion. But the difficulty as always is that physicists do not have principles or procedures that are not derived from physics, therefore in Carroll’s hands the enterprise never achieves a philosophical solidity. It is simply a softer version of a “rocket scientist” telling the rest of us what’s real and what’s “poetic,” and it ends up supporting the prejudice that religion is incompatible with science. No surprise here, after all that has been Carroll’s thesis all along.

2

My criticism is that Carroll’s approach, like Gould’s, leaves the knowing subject fragmented, and human knowledge arbitrarily shackled and without the resources needed for some eventual unification. I propose that instead of evoking parallel endeavors that do not overlap (and most certainly do not converge), there should be a hierarchy among the disciplines that reflects the hierarchy that we see in reality.

In the real world we first encounter living matter in our own organisms and those of our parents. It is only later that we discover that the components of living organisms can also be found in non-living forms. The hierarchy in nature is integral and organic. That means we experience matter directly and primordially as a living dynamic synthesis long before we artificially analyze it into its components and experience those parts as inert. I believe it is more faithful to the data to let our conceptual organization be guided by the organic whole as presented to us by nature rather than to insist that the analysis we perform later on using artificial intermediaries, dominate experience and determine the direction of discourse.

Nature’s integrated hierarchy should be reflected in human enquiry not as a set of discrete layers one on top of another but rather as an interpenetrating system that allows data and perceptions from the primordial “level” — material LIFE — to enter heuristically into the other levels that depend upon it, in order to “guide” enquiry and suggest solutions. Analysis in this case follows and mirrors the living hierarchy as it exists in the real world and is therefore open to an intellectual synthesis that reflects reality.

Under the obsolescent reductionist regimen, the assumed inertness of matter was permitted to dominate all other levels of enquiry and declare them, prejudicially, to be secondary, i.e., “emergent.” What I am proposing is the inverse: that the unmistakable perception that matter is alive in living organisms should be allowed to influence the discourse about the “nature” of matter at the level of the guiding “philosophy” and from there, physics and chemistry.

Having a “guiding philosophy” is an essential component of this approach. I have suggested that such a philosophy be derived and continually adjusted “abductively” from the discoveries of the various positive sciences with regard to the nature of matter. That means that there is a constant interaction between what the sciences are discovering about what is “real” in their area of interest and the overall nature of matter, i.e., what it means to exist, which is the purview of philosophy. The fundamental focus is, as always, existence. What is real is what exists — matter’s energy.

What have we learned about existence from the discoveries of science, and what, therefore, are some of the assumptions of this philosophy?

  • The first is that existence is matter and matter is existence.       Ideas and their derivatives like “bodiless minds,” spirits, are not real “things” — that includes an erstwhile imagined “Great Spirit.” They do not exist as stand-alone entities. Mind and its ideas are a “state” or “dimension” or “condition” of matter.       There is no separate world of “spirits.”
  • Secondly we have learned that matter is not a static “thing” but rather a dynamic energy, a force that resides at the core of all things sustaining them in existence. Matter and energy are only a conceptual dyad — two different ways of looking at the same thing — not a metaphysical duality. They are two words that refer to a singular phenomenal reality: depending on the instrument we use, matter may appear as solid particles or as an undulating force that we call waves. Indeed, the primary insight of quantum physics is that matter is both particle and wave — matter and energy — integrally, simultaneously. The indeterminacy, superposition, entanglement and tunneling that characterize matter at the quantum level are all reducible to the particle/wave nature of matter.
  • Third, we have learned from biology that in nature, spontaneously and without any intervention from rational beings like humans (or gods), matter is alive. Material organisms are conscious of themselves as “selves” and of the world around them as distinct and separate. They preserve their living integrity by intentionally relating outside themselves: finding food, avoiding enemies and reproducing.
  • Fourth, self-awareness is an intrinsic feature of LIFE and therefore can be assumed to be an intrinsic potentiality of the matter of which living organisms are constructed. This “interiority” means that consciousness is not different from living organisms as a separate “force” or “power.” In other words, and in contrast to idealist mediaeval scholastics like Thomas Aquinas and Johannes Eckhart, consciousness is a property of matter and and a product of LIFE; material LIFE is not the product of consciousness.

It is essential that we eliminate from this “philosophy” all vestiges of the preconceptions that once assigned an exclusive priority in all areas of endeavor to the experience had at the level of scientific physics and chemistry. Reductionism has had free rein for a century and a half and has failed miserably to solve the problem of the origin of life — to this day still claiming a strictly mechanistic understanding that will be found “any day now.” Furthermore, reductionism, in the form of the “modern synthesis” about evolution — a consensus of the 1940’s that saw evolution as a strictly passive a posteriori event based exclusively on random genetic mutations independent of environmental pressure — has also failed to account for some of the more common examples of rapid genetic adaptability.[17] I claim, to the contrary, that reductionist observations are secondary. They are not foundational perceptions and they do not represent the living hierarchical synthesis existing in nature and in human intellectual endeavors that mirror nature, like art and poetry.

I propose a phenomenological starting point for this philosophy. The beginnings of human knowledge about matter are the spontaneous unmediated perceptions of unsophisticated, scientifically unprepared culturally socialized human-beings. Let’s illustrate with an example. A boy meets a girl; and in each of them there is generated the possibilities of a relationship. One of the spontaneous unreflective assumptions in this encounter is that the other person is a living human being. There is no way that either of them would be the least bit confused about what it means to be human and alive, especially in the context of an intergender contact, even if for some reason they were momentarily deceived. If there were the slightest doubt about it, the process of evaluating the possibility of relationship would be immediately terminated. No professional help is needed to make that judgment. The question is resolvable by the “unaided” individuals themselves using their own resources without having recourse to any outside instrumentation, guidance, mathematical calculations or other substance. The perception is primordial; it is direct, unmediated, spontaneous and, barring an unusual source of deception, intentional or otherwise, inerrant. Human beings know LIFE when they see it, and they very quickly determine whether a living organism is human or not, even in the absence of common language.

The perception on the unsophisticated level is as indisputably objective as any perception had on any “scientific” level of discourse mediated by any instrumentation or procedure of any kind. No experience is any more privileged, true and free from error. Any later perceptions had on other levels that would seem to require that these primordial perceptions be considered illusory are invalidated ad limen.

*

As our example illustrates, our unmediated perceptions are verifiable with the consensus of multiple observers and indisputably true. A child can see that a caterpillar is alive, and, through a microscope, that an amoeba or a bacterium is alive. There is nothing privileged — any more objective — about the later perceptions of the isolated inert components of living organisms mediated by sophisticated instruments and expressed in numerical measurements.

In the case of LIFE at the macro level, the perception is not the result of an inference or mediated through other data. We know what LIFE is, directly because we ourselves are alive; we know it connaturally; we are in direct contact with our own conatus.

The only alternative would be to insist that everything significant to us and within our range of competence as a human being is illusion. Indeed, if “science” can convince us that our spontaneous perceptions about LIFE are completely unreliable, then perceptions had through the lens of a microscope are equally invalidated because it is the same human being with the same eyes in each case doing the looking.

To insist that somehow the later, reduced perception reflects the really valid version of reality would mean that LIFE must be secondary and therefore introduced or caused. That is absurd. The declaration that LIFE is not primordial but “secondary,” “emergent,” “derived” is an unproven presumption and I contend, prejudiced. Therefore the demand that somehow the “emergence” or the “derivation” of LIFE from non-life must be “explained,” is unwarranted. That the components of life can also be found in non-living forms, I contend, is really the secondary phenomenon that must be explained. We can see from matter’s role in living organisms that the potential for LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter, for living organisms are all and only matter, and apparently all matter, as far as we can tell, is capable of being alive.

I realize how revolutionary it is to speak in these terms. It has been the claim of the reductionists since time immemorial that LIFE must be the effect of some peculiar configuration of the inert particles of matter, or the integrity of the material universe is compromised. Any other stance, they say, implies that LIFE is a kind of second substance[18] or force other than matter that had to have been introduced into matter from outside matter, i.e., by something that was itself not matter. They reject dualism. I absolutely agree and applaud their efforts. But by their own premises they cannot escape from it. A spirit-matter dualism has been the unquestioned metaphysical assumption in the lands of the West since almost the beginning of the common era. We have since discovered that there is nothing other than matter. So such a spiritualist hypothesis is out of the question. Reductionists continue to defend themselves against an imagined rival dualism because if you start from the assumption of inertness, some form of dualism is the only explanation for LIFE: in the reductionist universe there must be something other than matter to account for LIFE. The assumption of the inertness of matter was set in stone with Descartes who was a convinced dualist, and perfectly content to let “spirit” explain the presence of LIFE. Indeed, it was the dualist conviction that all vitality including  conscious intelligence belonged exclusively to “spirit” that gave rise to the belief that matter was inert and passive. Without dualism reductionists have no explanation for LIFE hence the temptation to claim LIFE is a mechanical illusion, like motion pictures’ imitation of living reality.

*

This helps elucidate the devastating intellectual effect of Carroll’s and Hawking’s “model-depen­­­dent-realism” separating the disciplines into parallel tracks hermetically sealed from one another instead of being hierarchically unified and mutually inter-related. “Model-dependent-realism” allows the various sciences (and religion) to proceed with their traditional pursuits free of any interference from one another. But in the long-run it militates against the kind of conceptual integration that reflects the integrity of the real world. There is only one beautifully integrated world out there, and our minds are a part of it. There is no reason why our ideational constructs cannot reflect that integrity. Reductionism by insisting that the perception of LIFE is not valid, a priori, prevents any such unified understanding from occurring.

By invalidly assuming that matter is inert, reductionists are left without an explanation for LIFE. They have no choice but to insist without proof that what appears to be a property that goes beyond the known possibilities of inert matter in isolation, must actually be the effect of some inert mechanical cause that we have yet to discover, and that the living phenomena that result are inexplicably of an exponentially different level of reality from that cause. (… or, more logically, illusion.) Reductionists have no valid right to deny to the components of living organisms the very property of LIFE that they actually experience in them as composites. They insist on reducing the living material organisms whose components are all directly experienced as alive, to the components as they could be found outside of living organisms … an experience that in fact they are not having … and then, based on that fantasy, make predictions about mechanistic causation that in fact have never materialized: they still can’t explain in reductionist terms how LIFE is “caused.”

It’s all a work of the imagination. By refusing to accept the living potential inherent in matter — an empirical datum of unimpeachable validity — they are suppressing their and everyone’s first, primordial and immediate experience of LIFE as all and only matter, and therefore that LIFE is incontrovertibly a property of matter needing not a cause but a simple activation for it to emerge and be made manifest.

LIFE is not alone with this characterization. Electromagnetism, for example, is another property of all matter; but a particular material’s electromagnetic potential is not apparent until something becomes present in the immediate environment that activates that potential and puts it on display. A simple copper wire, for example, appears utterly inert. It shows no electromagnetic characteristics until magnetic lines of force in motion cross the wire. When that happens, an electric current is induced in the wire and travels in a direction and with a power determined by the strength of the magnet, the speed and direction of the moving force-lines.

That the appearance of LIFE in a perceptible form may depend upon a particular configuration of matter’s elements for its activation, is not the same as saying that LIFE was caused or created by that configuration. LIFE is a property not an effect of matter. We experience LIFE long before we are tempted to think of matter as inert and lifeless, and the LIFE we experience are all living material organisms. There is no experience of life that is had outside of material organisms. There is no “immaterial” life that we ever experience anywhere or at any time. We can experience matter that does not appear alive, but we cannot experience life that is not matter.

*

I contend that LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter, every bit as much as mass, electromagnetism, chemical valence or ordinary matter’s four spacetime dimensions. It is this intrinsic potential for vitality that demands entrance into the explanation of everything made of matter, guiding the discourse of the other disciplines that encounter matter in its purely physical and chemical, as well as its living, sentient, conscious and social forms. From this inverse point of view it is clear that the mystery is not how a dead earth can be teeming with life of all kinds, but how the living components of living organisms can also be found in an inert, non-living form. How did this come to be?

In some cases the inert form is clearly secondary — a by-product of living activity. Atmospheric oxygen is a good example. The transformation that occurs in photosynthesis wherein plants utilize carbon dioxide and sunlight to generate living energy, also produces oxygen as exhaust. Oxygen is a gas that is necessary for the combustion of nutrients in the cells of other living organisms. It is believed that the early earth had too little oxygen to support animal life. Virtually all the oxygen, therefore, that now makes up more than 20% of our atmosphere, on which all animal life including ourselves depends, was the result of the respiration of photosynthetic cyanobacteria (primitive sea-dwelling microbes) converting sunlight and CO2 into oxygen over hundreds of millions of years. In this case a major inert and necessary component of the cellular life of animals and insects is a derivative of living organisms.

Another example is limestone, a type of rock that supplies soils with needed calcium, a base that offsets toxic levels of growth-inhibiting acidity. Most limestone is composed of skeletal remains of marine organisms such as coral, forams and molluscs which had converted otherwise inaccessible calcium from ocean water into their own bodies making it accessible to us. These organisms have made a significant contribution to the geology of the earth, again, over billions of years. About 10% of the sedimentary rocks of the planet are limestone. It is an inert product of living activity that is in turn essential to the nutritional needs of other forms of life. Much of the calcium available to us as limestone is itself a derivative of LIFE.

The LIFE that appears to emerge, is actually inherent in matter and made manifest under conditions that we have not been able to reproduce. There is nothing that requires that LIFE be imagined as coming from outside matter, caused, created, produced and introduced by agents that are themselves outside matter. There is nothing outside matter. Matter is alive and passes life on without assistance from any outside source; whatever causes things to live resides inside matter.

 *

Living energy is fundamentally appetitive; it is focused on the desire to stay alive. Reductionist attempts to explain evolution as the purely fortuitous survival of genetic modifications that occurred through random mutation have failed to fully explain adaptation that is more rapid and more specific than the statistical probabilities anticipate.[19] Darwin stated that evolution’s tendency to fill out with new species all the various environmental niches that are available to it would be inexplicable if evolution did not have “profitable variations” to select from. Random mutations require a time factor that is too deep to produce “profitable variations” that respond to a rapidly changing environment.[20] McFadden observes:

Adaptive mutations occur more frequently when beneficial to the cell, in direct contradiction of the standard [reductionist] neoDarwinian evolutionary theory, which states that mutations always occur randomly with respect to the direction of evolutionary change. John Cairns’ initial experiments incubated E. coli cells unable to grow on lactose, on media containing lactose, and on parallel media without lactose. If, following standard neoDarwinian evolutionary theory, mutations always occur randomly in relation to the direction of evolutionary change, then the same mutation rate would be expected in both sets of cells. However, Cairns discovered that, after prolonged starvation, mutations that allowed the E. coli to utilize lactose increased in frequency. It appeared that the presence of lactose specifically enhanced mutations that allowed the cells to eat the lactose. The E. coli cell appeared to be able to direct its own mutations.[21]

This recent work by McFadden has suggested quantum mechanisms that could permit genetic drift in the direction indicated by the environment.

Other scientists are attempting to find genetic mechanisms at the macro level that explain this “adaptability.” They also acknowledge the limitations of the neo-Darwinian theory of random mutations:

One problem with Darwin’s theory is that, while species do evolve more adaptive traits (called phenotypes by biologists), the rate of random DNA sequence mutation turns out to be too slow to explain many of the changes observed. Scientists, well-aware of the issue, have proposed a variety of genetic mechanisms to compensate: genetic drift, in which small groups of individuals undergo dramatic genetic change; or epistasis, in which one set of genes suppress another, to name just two.

Yet even with such mechanisms in play, genetic mutation rates for complex organisms such as humans are dramatically lower than the frequency of change for a host of traits, from adjustments in metabolism to resistance to disease. The rapid emergence of trait variety is difficult to explain just through classic genetics and neo-Darwinian theory.[22]

In either case, it means that scientists are bearing down on explanations that suggest that somehow, utilizing purely material means, the organism at the genetic level is capable of “reading” (learning from) its environment and “desiring” to change itself accordingly. Evolution would then prove itself to be an active — living — instead of a purely passive — inert — process. While this does not represent the bulk of mainline thinking by scientists of biological evolution it is another significant stake in the heart of reductionism.

Those words, “learning” and “desiring,” are meant to be metaphoric placeholders for an energy, an inclination, a gradient, a disequilibrium between organism and environment creating a tension that is reflected in the genome of the organism — a disequilibrium which science has yet to identify and to which we have yet to assign an appropriate term. Nevertheless, even without a proper label this recent work indicates that material mechanisms must exist that can serve as the instrument for a primitive inclination that approximates “desire.” So while such a mechanism does not suggest the presence of an “immaterial” soul much less intelligence, it must also be said that it certainly does not support the purely mechanistic reductionist thesis that matter is utterly indifferent to its own existence, as it would if it were inert, and that survival is itself a matter of chance. It shows that there is even at the level of the genome a proactive bias toward continuity of identity (implying a self-awareness of some kind), and a corresponding material basis that enables it. Matter is a living existential dynamism that “wants” to continue to be-here, and the “wanting” is as material as any other property.

This “wanting” is universal. The fundamental indicator that some mass of matter is alive is that it wants to stay alive. The instinct for self-preservation is one of the unmistakable signs of life and it is perceptibly homogeneous across earth’s entire biota. Called “conatus” in the West since ancient times and most recently by Baruch Spinoza as integral to his system, the instinct is the same wherever it is found from protozoa to the most highly complex mammals. It displays itself always as (1) a flight from predators and other dangers, (2) an aggressive search and seizing of nutrients and (3) a compulsive need to reproduce. Staying alive is surviving. The conatus is an energy, a tension, whose point of equilibrium — secure existence — is by the very nature of things unachievable because matter is entropic.

It is the awareness of this internal contradiction that is the source of the unique pathos of human life.

 3

Entropy’s empirical effect at the macro-level of human life is death. With death we enter the realm of the seriously poetic that I feel Carroll’s naturalism fails to deliver. His upbeat statements about a life that ends at death sound superficial. His allusion to his own happy marriage and a successful, well remunerated career of a man still young, strong and healthy, suggests that we are being counselled by someone personally unacquainted with tragedy or serious loss of the kind that has been known to cripple the human will to live.

The ultimate challenge in life, in my opinion, is the human condition itself, defined as it is by death or its equivalents, the result of an intrinsically entropic material energy. We may call it the “human problem” because it has such a paralyzing effect on our species. But it is certainly not limited to humankind. It affects all of life. But our nearest cousins, sentient animals, seem not to be aware of death because they are limited in their ability to anticipate the future; their conatus dominates their psychic states freeing them from the sense of impending doom that affects human beings. Regardless, everything alive dies reluctantly and struggles with all its strength to defend its life and that of its offspring. Those who have heard the desperate wailing of a cow that has been separated from her calf will never again make the mistake of thinking that animals do not suffer loss.

*

We know now that matter is not a “thing,” it is energy. Energy is not a fixed and stable quantum. “Energy” is another word for dis­equi­li­brium. Energy refers to a state of tension that results from things not being where they “want” to be … and which are therefore driven … pulled, drawn, impelled … to traverse the distance that separates them from the place where they belong. It is the manifestation of an “unnatural” instability under pressure to do whatever it takes to rectify imbalance and achieve stasis. The resulting potential-for-movement is the energy LIFE uses for its purposes.

All energy sources are examples of the same fundamental insta­bility. A gently meandering river becomes a violent torrent when a precipitous drop over a cliff creates a huge disequilibrium in the water’s mass and hurls it through the air at speeds exponentially accelerated by gravity. The energy in a waterfall is the force gen­era­ted in the water in the effort to restore gravitational equili­brium. When that force is exploited to accomplish work, as with a water wheel, it is called power.

In the case of batteries, electrons are forcibly stripped from the atoms of a particular substance, like lead, and forcibly intro­duced and held “unnaturally” by another, like sulphuric acid. These are called lead-acid batteries. The artifi­cially displaced electrons are under tremendous pressure to return to the atoms from which they were taken — atoms whose protons are bereft and “hungry” for their electrons. When a pathway — a circuit — is created allow­ing those electrons to return and restore the equilibrium that was lost in the transfer, their compulsive motion in traveling “back home” can be exploi­ted to do work, much as falling water can be used to drive ma­chin­ery. Other types of batteries do the same thing using other substances, like nickel-cadmium. This is how we harness power: we interrupt and appro­priate for ourselves matter’s attempt to restore equilibrium and stasis.

*

The very nature of energy is disequilibrium; it is not a thing but a “need” to restore stability. It only lasts as long as the need lasts; once balance is achieved, the energy disappears. The dissipation of energy in the effort to restore equilibrium is called entropy. The very nature, therefore, of material energy is entropic. It tends to seek equilibrium, to dissipate itself and disappear. This even happens to the more funda­mental particles which are composites of even smaller energy packets. Protons, for example, are com­posed of quarks held together by gluons, the “strong force.” But even that force is not eternal and someday the quarks will return whence they came, the proton will succumb to entro­py; it will dis­inte­grate and its energy disappear. The entropic dissipation of energy affects all matter in our universe. Therefore the eventual disintegration of everything made of matter appears to be an inevitable feature of life on earth, and probably everywhere in our material universe.

LIFE, on the other hand, is anti-entropic; it exploits entropic disequili­bria: energies that result from displacements and driven to seek equilibrium. LIFE appropriates the force of entropy and diverts it to its own ends. The living energy available to an organism during life is the expropriated tension-toward-equilibrium (= dissipation and death) of its gathered components.

We, living matter, call the disappearance of energy, death. A bio­logical organism dies when the components at various levels of composition, macro and micro — bio-chemical, molecular and atomic — which had been gathered out of various locations, assembled and held to­gether “unnaturally” (thus creating a massive multi-level disequilibrium) under the forcible drive and direction of DNA to form a living individual, can no longer hold toge­ther and they return to their former states. The “particles” remain, their individual ener­gies now determined by their own entropy. No­thing ever disap­pears except the energy gradients involved.

It is precisely its “being-to­ward-death” that provides the organism the energy — the ability to do work — like a battery whose artificially skewed electron-to-proton ratio creates voltage. The irresis­tible “gravitational pull” — like water falling on a paddled wheel — to restore equilibrium is the energy utilized by LIFE, and which we exploit for our identities and our en­deavors, just as we exploit the flow of electrons to start our cars and power our cell phones. So the very LIFE we cherish so much is really the appropriation of our components’ “desire” to aban­don their unnatural conjunction as us and return to their former state … i.e., to die. The conversion to entropy is the energy source tapped by LIFE.

If somehow you were able to do away with “death,” therefore, you would also have eliminated the very wellspring of living motion: entropy. Death in a universe of matter, I submit, is intrin­sic to LIFE. This is an insuperable contradiction for human beings and constitutes what we call “the human condition.”

*

One of living matter’s more creative achievements was to use reproduc­tion to bypass the natural entropy of all living matter. The dying organism reproduces itself and its progeny receives a full quota of energy at zero entropy. But there was a twist. We have to remind ourselves that at the dawn of life, simple cell division, mitosis — endlessly cloning the same individual — was superseded by meiosis, the counter-intuitive innovation of coupling two distinct individual org­an­isms producing a third indepen­dent of each, also known as sexual reproduction.

Sexual reproduction was invented by eukaryote single-celled animals 1.2 billion years ago and it allowed for the creation of genetically superior cells with a far greater range of capability. The achievement was exponential, for it not only accomplished its principal goal, the transcendence of death, but it also created species — communities of individuals based on biological relationships which carried LIFE into the future in place of the individuals who died. We are the beneficiaries of those seminal discoveries; they determined the basic structure of the bodies and behavior of everything that came afterward. It hap­pened before the Cambrian explosion, and those advances made possible the emergence of all complex multi-celled organisms in existence today, including us. The genetic sex-based relationships that are so fundamental to our personal identi­ties and social lives originated in that epic achievement made by a single celled organism so tiny that it cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Sexual reproduction outflanks death but it does not overcome it. This was the “immortality” devised by matter’s living energy, and it was obtained at the cost of the individual organism which dies. LIFE transcended death by appropriating it. Individual organismic death was integrated into matter’s energy transcending itself and evolving. Nature’s concern, apparently, has never been the eternal life of the individual, it is something else … .

*

Scientists argue about the mechanisms involved here, but the details are ultimately irrelevant to the individual human being who is faced with an inescapable contradiction intrinsic to the human organism itself: there is a conatus — an irrepressible desire for endless LIFE — emanating from the very same matter that is entropically programmed to dissipate and die. Death’s sting is felt even more intensely because the relationships that make life meaningful — built on LIFE’s reproductive strategy — are terminated for the individuals at death. A death that may be acceptable to those inured to their own physical pain becomes intolerable when it means the permanent loss of irreplaceable loved ones: partners, spouses, siblings, parents, children, kindred, friends. The sense of isolation and abandonment that accompanies loss of such devastating proportions can be immobilizing. There is no solution to this problem. It will not go away and it is not only confined to the old and deteriorating. It pervades all of life and is dismissed only at the price of a shallow immaturity or a selfish and cowardly refusal of intimacy and commitment.

In human terms, we are inconsolably addicted to LIFE in human community. Saying the same thing in abstract philosophical terms: we are only satisfied by communitarian existence, which in a material universe means being-here together. In the “philosophy” that Carroll agrees must guide the relationship among the intellectual disciplines, existence must be the controlling concept, because in all biological LIFE existence is the driving force.

Our individual relationship to LIFE is not limited to intellectual analysis. We are not only computers. We are sensitive human beings driven by the conatus whose loving embrace of what we are produces a pathos we all share. This pathos is at the root of all our poetry. We take our relationships seriously, and the fact that entropic life means that struggle as we will, each and every loved one we have will be lost to us either by their death or ours, spits in the face of the efforts we make to bind ourselves to one another with hoops of steel. If you are readily reconciled to this situation, it is my personal opinion that there is something lacking in you. “Cast a cold eye on life on death, horseman, pass by …” If you think the poet meant that that was the way he wanted to live, think again. I hear Yeats saying something else: this is what we are reduced to — the only alternative left to us — under the broken regime of entropic matter. It’s a seething anger that echoes Dylan Thomas’ “rage against the dying of the light.” This is the problem that Carroll does not address: the human condition. Death is not just a neutral biological event for us, it is a disaster of catastro­phic proportions because of the internal contradiction in matter’s energy. Matter is simultaneously conatus and entropy — LIFE and death. And for someone who claims to offer a picture so “big” that it will explain the “Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself” such an omission reveals a lack of depth that can only be described as pathetic.

*

Death or its equivalents is the purview of religion. All religions are focused on taking away the sting of death. Some, like the Western religions of the “book,” evolved a belief that “life will be changed, not taken away” and the human person will live on in another world of “spirit” where all relationships will continue forever. Others, like Buddhists, avoid any talk of an afterlife and suggest rather that the problem resides with the unrealistic expectations that result from placing too much credence in the promptings of the conatus. The quest for permanent existence, they say, is a self-imposed false hope that aggravates suffering. Buddhism is entirely compatible with the conclusions of the reductionists’ worldview, and Carroll’s inexplicable silence regarding Buddhism’s capacity to accompany science and address the internal contradiction at the heart of matter, in my opinion, displays his lack of any real interest in the “poetic” side of the issue. His interest in religion seems confined to insisting that in any form it is incompatible with science.

Existential suffering is a real phenomenon for human beings. And if you are going to insist that “religion” is incompatible with science, then it seems to me that, at a minimum, you have to show that you understand what religion does, and attempt to provide some alternative way of confronting (not just dismissing) existential suffering — i.e., the human condition. Being human is as real a manifestation of matter’s energy as any atomic, chemical or biological phenomenon. What is the “meaning” of lives and loves that disappear? Carroll’s promise is empty for he offers no meaning. There is no “poetry” in Carroll’s “poetic naturalism.” He has not convinced me that he has yet to feel the full brunt of what it means to be living matter in this material universe.

4

Religion in the West, admittedly, has become a problem for modern man. It is so dominated by a false literalist narrative inherited from antiquity that it explains if not excuses Carroll’s antipathy. Carroll is right. Religion’s antiquated narrative is incompatible with science. If that was his concern, he should be reassured that there are many “religionists” who have gone beyond the West’s antiquated narrative. We acknow­ledge science’s authority in matters of cosmological importance and we are com­mit­ted to developing a new narrative that is compatible with science. Out of commitment to the poetic side of his “poetic naturalism” Carroll might consider joining us in our efforts.

Granted that traditional religion is obsolete, we also recognize that religion has helped people cope with decline and death. Whatever other shortcomings Religion may have, it has provided “meaning” in the form of explanation and poetry. Carroll recognizes we have a right to both. But he will not entertain the possibility that religion, purged of its defects, might be the poetry his explanations are lacking.

Western Religion’s traditional “solution” of the human problem was not factual. The narrative that there is another world of “spirits” from which we came and to which our disembodied “souls” will return after death is pure fiction. I agree. There is no other world. There are no bodiless souls; our personalities, which are the neural reflections of the coherence and temporal identity of our material organisms, disappear when our bodies disintegrate.

We are entropic beings. We participate fully in the limitations endemic to LIFE in this exclusively material universe. The “poetic” dimension should acknowledge and addres­s the apparent contradiction between a material energy that is instinctively programmed to live forever (and spontaneously cultivates relationships in view of that expectation) and is simultaneously destined to succumb to an organismic entropy that terminates all the relationships created during the lifespan of the organism. I may not care if I live or die, but I am not resigned to the loss of the people I love.

How does religion address this? How does it both acknowledge and confront the inherent contradiction in the human condition?

The first step is to distinguish religion’s intent from the traditional means chosen to achieve it. The means chosen, the narratives all preceded the era of modern science and therefore were inevitably imaginative in character. So, Yes! The religious narrative must be adjusted to accommodate the new knowledge. This adjustment is not complicated: pre-scientific “facts” — creation accounts, miracles — are taken as mythic, i.e., metaphorical not literal. But myth is not only a fictional story. The traditional myth also embodies the religious intent of the narrative; and the religious intent, may remain true even after the discreditation of the literal story.

Let’s make this concrete: The biblical book of Genesis contains the Judaic myth of creation. Until the modern era people believed that this was a literal account. We now know, however, that the earth and life on it was not the intentional, purposeful work of an omnipotent humanoid Craftsman; it was the self-elaboration of matter occurring over fourteen billion years. The ancient authors were probably well aware that they were making up a story. But it was a story that made sense according to their lights and it projected their religious intent: Creation implied “Will.” Humankind and the world in which it found itself was the product of intention, choice, love.

*

The intent of the biblical authors was to ground religion in relationship. Effectively what that means is that the quest for secure existence, which is the objective of the conatus, finds its ultimate answer in the benevolence of the source of existence. Were they right? Obviously they were wrong about the cosmological facts; but were they also wrong about the intent: the claim that Creation was a product of “Will,” a project of love, and that just being alive meant you were already in a reciprocal relationship with your existential source? Does the familiar, the relational, the human, the interpersonal, truly characterize existence, or is “being human” with its focus on relationship an anomaly, a freak of nature, an idiosyncrasy that needs to be sheltered under blankets of denial from a harsh mechanical universe that has no idea what we are talking about?

Consider: from our analysis in section 2 of this essay, we know that matter is alive and appetitive. Unless you are prepared to insist that something entirely new … something entirely other than the matter present, entered the scene and ruptured the linear continuity of what had been steadily evolving since the initial expansion, the appearance of LIFE has to be understood as the emergence of what was there all along, a step in a process that was already underway. There is enough evidence to make it reasonable if not compelling that the fundamental indicator of life — the instinct for self-preservation — had been operative analogously at all phases of matter’s appearance, even at the sub-atomic, atomic and molecular levels. Conatus is the desire to live, to survive. No matter how primitive the level in which it is found, LIFE is the desire to continue living, being-here: LIFE is intrinsically, inherently, “Will” in the sense that Arthur Schopenhauer used the word:

For Schopenhauer, this is not the principle of self-consciousness and rationally-infused will, but is rather what he simply calls “Will” — a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge at the foundation of our instinctual drives, and at the foundational being of everything. Schopenhauer’s originality does not reside in his characterization of the world as Will, or as act — for we encounter this position in Fichte’s philosophy — but in the conception of Will as being devoid of rationality or intellect.[23]

As living forms evolved, the way they manifested their conatus evolved along with them. Primitive cellular behavior developed new strategies of survival that included multicellularity with its necessary internal lockstep collaboration among individual cells along with an external communitarianism connecting members of the same species to one another for securing food, defending against predators and having partners for reproduction. Eventually consciousness evolved into intelligence and “Will” came to include purpose and intentionality as we humans understand and use the word. None of these later developments, however, represented an interruption in the simple, fundamental thrust of the conatus, established at the first moments of matter’s existence: the will to be-here.

Religion projects that relationship is the foundational underpinning of all reality. Before the scientific era, that assumption was extrapolated from humankind’s experience of its own relationality and creativity, and it was expressed by imagining a “humanoid” deity who chose to create the world as his artisanal product the way a human Craftsman would — intentionally.

Later, in Greek hands, Jewish belief in a humanoid “God” became part of a wider assumption that something other than matter existed in the universe. Platonic Greeks posited an invisible substance called “spirit” that was alive, intelligent and could never die. The theory was called “dualism” because it imagined that there were two completely distinct and opposed substances in the world: matter and spirit. It had been falsely assumed that we humans were “spirit” and belonged to another world, a world of spirits, and that we were pathetically alone with our rational intelligence in this world made of matter. But we now know that there is no such “thing” as spirit, there is no “other” world and “consciousness” exists in a continuum across all the levels of existence.

When, under the impetus of reductionist science, “spirit” disappeared as the source of LIFE, “God,” who was assumed to be spirit, disappeared with it. Matter, without spirit, was orphaned in the reductionist universe and was assumed to be inert, passive, mechanical and utterly devoid of life. It meant that relationship lost its rationale. Religion, without a philosophical foundation in “spirit,” could not conjure a cosmic “relationship” out of nothing. Matter was considered inert and lefeless, and what we called LIFE was considered illusion.

But I have a different view. LIFE is not illusion because our perception of LIFE is beyond the possibility of error. We know LIFE when we see it because we ourselves are alive. Yes, we are matter, and only matter, the material offspring of this material universe; but rather than eliminating, I maintain that being matter validates our spontaneous option for relationship because “Will” is not grounded in rational “spirit” — it is grounded in living matter.

*

LIFE on earth displays a remarkable homogeneity. I see in protozoa and other primitive forms the very same instincts that drive my own conatus. The LIFE we share is similar in all of us and suggests not only the same origination but an ongoing activation of the same energy.

The active commonality immediately evokes a single source and matrix without specifying what that source is or how the participation occurs. The only LIFE that exists has been passed on. LIFE, it seems, can only arise from LIFE. Just by recognizing that there is a LIFE-source whose essential appetitive energy all living things autonomously and simultaneously activate as our respective conatus, is sufficient to ground what I mean by religion. We are one thing by reason of LIFE.

Religion comprises the symbolic structures that serve as vehicle for the human relationship to all the participants in this family, including its unknown existential source and matrix. I contend that it is absolutely appropriate to relate to LIFE; LIFE, after all, is responsible for what we are … and that we are-here … even though in its manifestations it is not exclusively human, and in fact cannot be said to reside any­where but in the places where it is observed functioning, i.e., in all things made of matter including us. We know LIFE when we see it. It is, as far as we can tell, exactly as universally immanent as it appears. It can legitimately be characterized as: an aggregative and integrative tendency in unconnected atoms and molecules, a vegetative force of growth by nourishment in plants, a sentient and mobile dynamism in animals, and a conscious intelligent communitarian drive in human beings. It is also, as we saw in section 2, hierarchically ordered: each level of emergence incorporates and builds out from the level(s) that went before. No one way of being alive can be said to take priority over others, so none can be said to be secondary, caused, or the result of delusion.

LIFE is also, indisputably, as a posteriori as it appears. In other words, while LIFE as a dormant potential naturally preceded its perceptible emergence in living things, its actual activation was the work of the existing agent or agents — those particular cells — that first became aware of that potential and appropriated for themselves their power to live, i.e., to “will” to be-here. For it seems indisputable that at the moment that LIFE emerged some proto-cell or complex molecule had to morph into a self-embracing organism capable of self-directed behavior focused on self-susten­ance, self-preservation and self-transcending reproduction.

Before we go any further I would like to clarify what exactly our conclusions are saying, and what they are not.

  • This is absolutely not an attempt to prove the existence of the traditional imaginary “God” of supernatural theism. That “God” was an individual transcendent humanoid entity who created the universe and intervenes in it at will to change the course of cosmic and human history. He was believed to communicate with humankind through “revelation” and interpersonal contact. There is no such “God” and this study is not an attempt to conjure him into existence, much less to validate the assertions made by those who claim to be the privileged recipient of his revelations and the executor of his will.
  • We are simply trying to describe LIFE across the entire spectrum of living things by identifying its fundamental characteristics, and we have determined that they are a self-embrace manifested in the conatus — the desire to live — the “Will” to be-here which transcends death through reproduction and lives on in progeny. “Will” characterizes LIFE proportionately at all levels of its manifestations.
  • The conatus is recognizable as an appetite for existential continuation which approximates to desire and will; it is a primary sign of LIFE. The organism knows itself to be a “self.” The conatus is an intentionality bound to conscious identity whereby the living entity in question displays a self-interest in its own existential continuity through self-sustenance, self-defense and reproduction. It is a self-embrace.
  • Using abductive reasoning[24] the clear and undeniable presence of the conatus at all levels and all phases of living complexity evokes the concept of a common source and universal presence with an inferential certitude.24 I make no claim, however, that the word “source” gives us any information beyond the bare abstract notion itself. The best explanation for the universal activation of the homogeneous conatus across earth’s entire biota, and plausibly in all of matter, is a common source and continuous matrix.
  • LIFE is matrix. There is no evidence that the alleged “source” of LIFE is a separate independent organism or entity with a unique or singular identity of its own, much less that it is rational and purposeful. There is nothing to suggest that LIFE is not identical with, or at least indistinguishable from, the living organisms where it is currently being actuated exactly as we observe it. The only information about LIFE that we have is what we see it doing and where we see it functioning: it is an appetite that resides with equal intensity and equal autonomy in all living material organisms proportionate to the level of complexity of their organisms and their interaction with the world around them.

I hope these clarifications are enough to establish the bare simplicity of what I consider a compelling conclusion: that the LIFE we perceive in ourselves and in all living things includes the notion of existential will or intent allowing for relationship among all living things including LIFE’s unknown source. The desire for the existential continuity (survival) of self through progeny is an intrinsic and universal property of LIFE whereby it reaches out to living things beyond itself, making LIFE at all levels and between levels intrinsically relational.

The implications of these conclusions for the human being are profound, for it means that our natural inclination toward relationship as our primary valence with the world around us finds itself validated in a cosmic milieu and an endless future trajectory, for we are nothing but living matter and we shall always be. LIFE and its reproductive (genetic) relationships absolutely defines what we are because it characterizes everything that has emerged and evolved from the material energy that is this earth. I contend it is appropriate to pursue a grateful engaged relationship to this LIFE in which we “live and move and have our being” because we are genetically related to it biologically and intentionally. For, while there is no indication that LIFE is an individual entity capable of humanoid interpersonal reciprocation, our instinct to be grateful is not unreasonable because of the clear indications of intentionality — “Will” — in matter’s living energy wherever it is found, and retrospectively in its source. The notion of an endless existential continuity that intentionally embraces all future progeny is intrinsic to LIFE. As the offspring and actuators of that “Will,” we exist enveloped in its pro-creative embrace. We are a chosen thing. We are part of a project of love and our very organisms are programmed to further that enterprise.

5

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

For consider:

  1. The mystics all agree that that encounter with [LIFE][25] is indistinguishable from an encounter with oneself. [LIFE] and the living human organism are one and the same thing. Hence, the most intimate, accurate and authentic perception of [LIFE] is had in the embrace of oneself.
  2. For mystics who believe in life in another world, that life is conceived as being fully present here in this life to such a degree that the future aspirations become a subset, and virtusally superfluous: a symbol of the possession of [LIFE] here and now.
  3. Mystics share a universal conviction that [LIFE] is not a separate entity/person but an energy resident in all living things that has no will of its own aside from the endless will to live and to live endlessly in the living individual organisms. [LIFE] and the totality it enlivens are one and the same thing even as each individual living organism activates LIFE as its own and autonomously, and the LIFE force goes on to transcend current forms and evolve ever new ones.
  4. The mystics all say that the core of relationship to [LIFE] is detachment from an ersatz “self” created by a false importance assigned to the individual conatus mistakenly thought to be independent, permanent and self-subsistent. They encourage, instead, the identification with a universal “Self” — a totality that includes not only all living things, but also everything that exists. It is the totality to which the “self” belongs and to which its conatus should be subordinated through a program of training in detachment.
  5. They concur that while rational behavior is essential to being human, it does not provide the permanence that the conatus seeks. Paradoxically, moral achievement, like other forms of individual success, insofar as they are pursued for self-enhancement, are to be the object of detachment — a letting-go that allows the LIFE of the totality to assume the control of the human individual and direct behavior.
  6. They all counsel a relationship to [LIFE] that does not presume interpersonal humanoid reciprocity. They are acutely aware of the fact that [LIFE] is not an individual entity, like a human person. [LIFE] is the existential energy of all things activated proportionately to the complexity and interiority of the organism. Therefore, the great mystics all tend to encourage relational practices to [LIFE] that transcend “conversational” — one-to-one — communication. They avoid traditional religious “petition” for a miraculous intervention to alter reality for the benefit of certain individuals so characteristic of Western Christianity.
  7. They universally counsel love for all things. [LIFE] and the totality that [LIFE] enlivens are in a sense more real and more substantial than any individual.

The mystics in all cases point to a spare and indistinct conceptual structure at the foundation of their experience. As a primary exercise they are all, including western mystics, vigorously focused on the deconstruction of the literalist imagery of their respective religions. They consistently discourage the pursuit of and attachment to anything like visions, consolations, or feelings interpreted as interpersonal “contact,” emphasizing instead trust in the solidity of the LIFE we actuate as our own. They describe the object of their quest — [LIFE] — as the unspoken background that increasingly becomes the object of our direct awareness. They are quite clear that the heights of religious experience for them have occurred when they were simply being themselves, living with the background awareness of their immersion in LIFE. They speak of a sense of contact that is not conceptually clear, an “unknowing.”

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

6

In the real world death is subordinate to LIFE. It’s only in our heads that death dominates; religion helps us adjust to reality. LIFE exploits the energy of entropy, the descent to equilibrium, to launch its enterprises. LIFE has devised an effective ongoing strategy to transcend death, but it doesn’t live on in the individual; it lives on in the totality. Sexual reproduction not only insures that the living cells of the reproducing organisms pass unscathed under the wire to become new individuals built from the actual cells of their parents, but the natural genetic drift occurring at the time of reproduction provides the mutations which evolution uses to create new and unimagined organisms.

Evolution is the partner of sexual reproduction and by means of evolution LIFE has produced this universe of living things creating a vast totality that is genetically interrelated. The family of living species is like an immense cosmic tree, every part connected to every other part by reason of a genetic sharing that proceeds on two levels at once.

The first level is biological structure. Because of the homogeneity of the 27 principal proteins used by the three domains of living organisms, scientists believe that all living things are traceable to one original ancestor cell:

All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm. The study supports the widely held “universal common ancestor” theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.[26]

The second is the energy of LIFE. LIFE, it seems, does not arise spontaneously. Traditional beliefs in “spontaneous generation” have all been disproven, and modern reductionist attempts to find some “mechanism” that will turn LIFE on have failed. Where there is LIFE it has only been passed on from a living organism. This seems to confirm the single-cell origin of all living things on earth and that LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter. That means, if we were to think of LIFE as a flame, all currently living things are alive with the same LIFE: they are the continued manifestations of the same fire that has been passed on from the first originating ancestor.

This image — of LIFE as fire — is helpful in another way. If we think of various materials, like paper, cardboard, wood, coal, we know that they all are combustible, i.e., they can all burn. Their “ability to burn” is an intrinsic property that lies dormant until a flame is brought near and for a long enough time that it causes the material to “catch” fire making “combustibility” visible. The property was there all along, but it needed to be activated by fire itself to become manifest. We can think of LIFE similarly. All matter has the potential for being part of living organisms. But it is only when LIFE transmits itself genetically that a new living thing is born and “matter” displays its viability. Once that happens, the “fire” widens and intensifies. It is still the very same fire, now shared among many without in any way being diminished. The fire burns until it exhausts fuel or oxygen or both.

The point of this imagery is that reality is a living totality. We are part and parcel of an ongoing organic process whereby LIFE’s power to exploit the energies of entropy expands continually. LIFE’s parasitism of death results in the continuous production of ever new living composites that transcend themselves creatively in unexpected directions by evolving. These new organisms enter into the ever larger totality of genetically related living things with which they themselves then interact anti-entropi­cally. The infinitely variegated universe of matter is one “thing” with one dynamism by reason of a LIFE-that-plunders-death.

To be part of this universe, therefore, is to be part of a cosmic project of boundless proportions whose inherent dynamism exhibits no discernible reason why it should ever end. If entropy is the ultimate source of the energy that LIFE uses for its undertakings, and if the “dark energy” thought to be responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe is actually new material (in disequilibrium) continually entering the system, the system is not closed; the process is open and potentially endless, and the capacities of the composites evolved by LIFE’s continued exploitation of the tension-toward-entropy, potentially infinite.

*

Here is where the “meaning” for humankind emerges from our analysis, and provides the substance — the raw material — for the poetry that naturalism by itself lacks. Death, the very source of our anguish, is simultaneously the wellspring of our participation in LIFE and the source of LIFE’s endless transcendent creativity. But please note well, there is a condition: living matter’s reproductive strategy is the only immortality there is. We must understand and be willing to embrace LIFE’s way of living endlessly. We have to let go of our way — fantasy projections like the Platonic paradigm whose historical time and place of birth are well known. We have to embrace the material conditions of our existence. How do we do that after millennia of Platonic conditioning?

The question comes down to this: if I embrace the material conditions of my existence, which “self” do I identify with? An individual “self” struggling to live forever in another world as a “spiritual” entity after a lifetime of competition for material survival in this world? … or a “Self” that embraces its role in the Cosmic Project of matter-in-process for whose communitarian service it has been prepared?

We all spend our early years as helpless children experiencing firsthand the selfless service of others — parents, siblings, kindred, friends — on our behalf. When we mature we reproduce ourselves by joining in a partnership of selfless love with another, each partner prepared to provide years of selfless love to offspring. After a lifetime wherein such selflessness, experienced both coming and going, clearly constitutes the chief activity of our time on earth, it seems more than obvious that we, of all LIFE’s projects, are the most prepared for identifying ourselves with the LIFE-widening goals of the totality. We are communitarian in nature; we are the products of and active participants in a collective project that has preceded us by billions of years to which we now contribute and which will continue on for billions of years into the future evolving versions of LIFE as yet wholly unimaginable. For all our transience as individuals, we are fully reproductive members of this totality and so we participate in its work of self-perpetu­a­tion. The ontogenesis that infallibly guides individual development from infancy to maturity terminates when our organism is capable of reproducing itself by mating with another. Sex, and therefore gendered life, male and female, across the phyla in plants and insects as well as animals, are the totality’s tools for endless LIFE. Our gendered bodies are the agents of living matter’s immortality.

Each organism embodies the totality. Every part and parcel of us is constructed of the same material energy that constitutes everything else in the universe. The cells of our bodies are built from the materials gathered from the organisms — plants, animals, fish, fungus — we consume every day. Humans burn up 60 tons of food and two and a half tons of oxygen over the course of a lifetime in the combustion process of living metabolism. Our bodies are 60% water. The exchange of matter between us and the material environment is so great that, physically speaking, we are one and the same thing. The only thing that seems to be exclusively ours is the “self” — the individual “self” that the great mystics of all traditions counsel us to discount and discard — the “self” that dies.

It is the individual “self,” given a false importance by the impulses of the conatus, that seems to be the only thing that dies at death. The rest — all the matter of which we were constructed along with the contributions, virtual and reproductive that we have made to the totality — live on after us with the same capacity to catapult the collective project beyond our death into the future. So if detachment from the individual “self” is the crowning goal of LIFE, as the great mystics have said, that detachment seems an inevitable achievement. For the human life-cycle seems ordered to the eventual disintegration of the “self,” and the return of the substance of every individual to the living pool of matter’s energy from which we came. We are part of the Cosmic Project whether we like it or not.

Thus the meaning of LIFE reveals itself, not as some dramatic reversal of the material processes of organic life throughout the planet — an imaginary “spiritual” escape into another world not made of matter — but rather the convergence of the destinies of all living things spawned by living matter in a great Project into the future. That Project can be summed up simply as the exploitation of the energy of entropy to achieve the triumph of LIFE over death. Theoretically speaking, in principle there is nothing to prevent all matter, everywhere, from being incorporated into living organisms. The only limitation — the only condition of membership in this spectacular totality — is that it be matter.

Religion, especially in its efforts to help us cope with the human condition, need no longer create fairy tales of other “spiritual” worlds where we will live forever, and conjure up fictional conditions for entry. Religion can counsel our acceptance of death as inherent to life, the wellspring of our living energies, and it can hold up as great models for us those who embraced death fearlessly and even with joy. The central role of the cross in the Christian tradition is validated, not as disdain for this world and flight to another, or as punishment for being born human, but as the poetic symbol of the transformation of our “selves” from individual isolated selfishness to a selfless participation in LIFE’s Project.

ENDNOTES

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_M._Carrol note: Carroll’s blog has a foto of the gravestone of Ludwig Boltzman which has engraved on it his entropy equation, S = k.log W.

[2] Carroll, Sean, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled: Why I won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation.” Slate. May 9, 2013. Cf the same article on Carroll’s website: http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/05/08/on-templeton/

[3] TBP, p.110

[4] Ibid., p. 111 The Book in which that view is presented is called The Grand Design, Bantam books, NY, 2010

[5] Oxford University Press, NY, 2012, for an extensive review see: Tony Equale, “A Dalliance with Dualism?” Nov 2012 tonyequale.wordpress.com/a-dalliance-with-dualism-2

[6] Columbia University Press, NY, 2015

[7] ibid., p. 115

[8] Hawking, op.cit., 2010, p. 5

[9] Ibid., p. 165

[9a] Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The Religion of the Future (Kindle Locations 196-201). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

[10] Ibid., p. 180

[11] Sean Carroll, “The Why Questions: Chapter and Multiverse” The Wall Street Journal, Sept 24, 2010

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hawking, 2010 op.cit., p. 94

[14] ibid., p.5

[15] Carroll, op.cit., WSJ 9/24/2010

[16] Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Random House, NY, 1999. Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria

[17] See below (endnotes 19 to 22 and relevant text) for further elucidation of this point.

[18] “second substance” was Descartes’ term for “spirit” as opposed to matter.

[19] Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili, The Edge of Life, Penguin Random House, NY, 2014, p. 220 ff.

[20] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859, reprint Random House, NY,1979, p. 167.

[21] Johnjoe McFadden, Quantum Evolution, Harper Collins, London, 2000, p. 77ff; p. 263. Cf also McFadden 2014, op.cit., p. 223.

[22] Michael Skinner, “A Unified Theory of Evolution” Aeon Magazine, Nov 9, 2016 http://aeon.us5.list-manage.com/track/click?u=89c6e02ebaf75bbc918731474&id=699f3faa56&e=bad7779e73

[23] Wicks, Robert, “Arthur Schopenhauer”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/schopenhauer/&gt;.

[24] “abductive reasoning” (also called abduction, abductive inference or retroduction) is a form of logical inference which goes from an observation to a theory which accounts for the observation, ideally seeking to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as “inference to the best explanation”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abductive_reasoning It should be noted that the highest certitude claimed by science is inferential certitude.

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

[26] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100513-science-evolution-darwin-single-ancestor/

In search of a new doctrine of “God” (II)

The “sense of the sacred” in my view stands on its own as a human phenomenon — a common psychological and social experience. It does not immediately imply the “existence of God,” as some claim. Nor does it appear to be derived from religious socialization; for people who do not believe in “God” also have a sense of the sacred.

Rather, in recognition of the intense emotional investment in whatever is considered sacred, it may be reasonably understood as a derivative of the conatus, our drive to survive as human beings. I will dare define it here: the sense of the sacred is a by-product of our existential self-em­brace. It is the affective resonance of our appreciation of our existence — an appreciation innate to our organic matter which radiates out to everything that has to do with it, from its source, to all those things believed necessary to maintain it.

[ Note: Some readers may object to the use of the term “sacred” because of its religious associations through the millennia. I recognize that it is a problem word in this regard. I will gladly accept the use of another word or phrase for “sense of the sacred” so long as it continues to refer to a subjective feeling imputing an ultimate value requiring recognition. Its interpretation may be a matter of legitimate dispute, but the existence of the phenomenon is not.
Also I am intentionally bracketing the effect of society’s collective appropriation of the conatus’ energy to create religion.]

So we start with a sense of the sacred as a human experience, and pursue an enquiry that tries to determine whether or not it has a justification that transcends cultural programming and personal predilection … or to say it in a different way, an enquiry to determine exactly what may explain it, and what it, in turn, explains. Effectively we are examining the root and ground of the conatus.

Essentialist-spirit­ua­list philosophy grounded the traditional “sacred” in two ways: (1) It said that “Being” was a spirit-“God” who designed and sustained our being with a participation in “his” being, and (2) that human beings each had an eternal personal destiny with “God” precisely and only because we were “spirits” as “he” was.

The cosmo-ontology that we are proposing here affects each of those points differently. As far as (2) is concerned, eternal personal destiny was called into question because our position challenges the existence of the separable immortal individual soul. Personal destiny from now on will have to be calculated on a different basis, and with an entirely different result. To the degree that the sense of the sacred was tied to the (eternal) existence of the immortal individual soul, it is gone.

participation-in-being

But in the case of (1), participation in “God’s” being, the question remains open. In the non-dualist view we are proposing in this study, the sacred is theoretically sustainable based on the “participation” cre­ated by the com­­mon possession of the substrate, matter’s energy. What it comes down to is this: material existence as we have been studying it, performs the theoretical role once assigned to “God” as “Being” — it is that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

How do these competing “grounds of the sacred” compare:

First, traditional participation suffers under an insuperable liability. It is premised, as we saw, on subsistent ideas. But there is no “World of Ideas” that makes traditional “participation in being” possible and there is no world of separable spirit. This will affect the “concept of Being” as the ground of participation. “Being” is an idea; it is not a “thing.”

The term “God” has been so wedded to the essentialist view that some feel it is impossible to use the word “God” without evoking essentialist spiritism. But the issue in this case is the word, not the reality.  There is no question that material energy is an existential factor of sufficient ontological heft to sustain the self-em­brace that gives rise to the conatus and our sense of the sacred. Matter’s energy is indisputably that “in which we live and move and have our being” and therefore, objectively, can explain and justify the sense of the sacred derived from the conatus.

Second, process, that aspect of matter’s energy revealed and mea­­s­ured in time, is fundamental to our definition of existence. The basic “stuff” of reality is not a “thing,” but a dynamism with a non-rational intentionality, a self-embrace for which rational consciousness is secondary, emergent, not antecedent, not directive. Anything built of it, therefore, will also be a self-embracing process, not an idea with a purpose embedded in a “thing.” To the extent that “sacredness” was dependent on the presence of static essences wed to final causes (purposes) and possibly a “divine” terminus, an Omega Point, it is gone. What kind of “sacred” does non-rational process, reflected in the conatus, evoke? My answer: only itself, an endless pro­cess of existing, a self-embrace that is equally functional at every point along the timeline of development.

Third, we can say that a shared substrate that evolves all things suggests a participation that is material, genetic and thoroughly a posteriori. It is not built on an a priori plan moving toward an Omega; it’s built on the aggregation of constituent parts, reproduction, symbiosis, a “genetic” relationship — family, community — the result of a process of invention and integration driven by an existential self-embrace.

If the energy at the base of matter — which I call existence — now performs the existential functions once assigned to “God,” there is no reason, as far as I can see, why it cannot provide the philosophical grounds for our sense of the sacred. But I want to emphasize, the sense of the sacred is a first-level phenomenon; it is indisputably there whether we find sufficient and necessary grounds to explain ity or not. Even further removed is whether such grounds approximate to what we used to call “God.”

“God” has always been considered “pure spirit.” The energy of matter cannot be postulated of “God” with­out imputing materiality to “God.” This is a critical issue for our tradition. That “God” might be material has been considered entirely unthinkable in the history of western philosophy. (But, see the appendix to the Mystery of Matter on the materiality of God.) The word “God” carries an ideological overload connoting “spirit.”

Matter is a living dynamism … does that make it sacred?

So let’s bracket the word “God” for now. Hasn’t the function of the concept, “God,” in fact, been replaced with matter’s energy?

The argumentation is this: the human sense of the sacred exists. What explains it? It is explained by a conatus, i.e., an irrepressible organic drive to survive that implies our love of our own existence and naturally calls everything that creates and supports it, “good,” by which I mean “sacred.” But the conatus — the human drive for self-preservation — is no different from the life force as we find it existing everywhere in our world, in every species and in every substance, accumulated from the elements of the substrate itself. It is a homo­geneous energy to which absolutely everything in the universe can be reduced. There is nothing else! Since we as humans, in our every fiber and function are nothing but this material energy, our sense of the sacred, which is our intense, irrepressible appreciation for our own existence, is justified and entirely explained as a derivative of matter’s energy. Therefore it is the substrate itself with its existential self-embrace that can be called the source of our sense of the sacred.

But the conatus requires a recognition of its creative power that was in evidence in even its most primitive state. Accepting the conatus as a living dynamism at the sub-atomic level, however, takes an understanding that transcends the information available to particle physicists working in isolation. Recognizing the homogeneity of the dynamism of the conatus across the levels of existence requires the use of a retroactive interpretation that looks at, not only what physics can directly observe and infer about the big bang revealed by particle colliders, but at what these particles are observed doing later on at virtually every level of evolutionary emergence. The panoply of forms, pre-living and living, conscious, intelligent and purposeful, that result from the repeated application of the “stuff” and collective strategy initiated at the big bang, is exclusively built of quarks and electrons … unless there is an outside “spirit,” the conatus must come from there.

The evidence for it is clear. Its character as existential self-embrace is within us, and it is through the intimate “experience” of one’s own conatus that it becomes more than a syllogism and overflows into a deeper understanding of all reality. But, that having been said, I want to emphasize, it always remains a syllogism:

Major premise: “life” cannot be reduced to mechanical reflexes (i.e. there is a qualitative difference between life and non-life);
Minor premise: but our planet is teeming with life, and every living thing is constructed only of a physical substrate which on its own and in isolation appears absolutely lifeless.
Conclusion: therefore, either there is another, immaterial, source that introjects life into “matter,” or the substrate, despite all appearances and reductionist claims, is itself a living dynamism.

The syllogism is inductive and after examining premises and evidence concludes that “matter is a living dynamism” activated proportionately (analogically) across the phyla of living things as we have been saying. If it cannot validly do that, the argument fails, and the reductionist position holds, although always with a condition … reductionism, in turn, must itself explain “life.”

Please note: I am not trying to prove the “existence of God” as traditionally conceived … the very idea of a separate “God-entity-person” disappeared with the disappearance of immaterial “spirit” and was only reluctantly acceded to even by mediaeval essentialists using “analogy” to justify calling “God” a “person” and not an impersonal force. I am rather trying to understand the mean­ing of the life-force, the source of my sense of the sacred. In other words, my question has changed. I am not asking “is there a ‘God'”? … or even “what is ‘God’ like”? … but rather “what makes the universe sacred for me”? … or, “what grounds, originates and explains my sense of the sacred”? This is an important difference, for if I slip and claim that I am actually discovering what “God” is really like (however true that may be), I have trapped myself by the “G” word and I’m back in the quest for something that I claim does not exist, viz., the Judaeo-Christian spirit-“God-entity,” personal Designer-Creator, cosmic agent, punisher-rewarder and hovering provider of the OT “Book.” The word “God” comes bundled with all these characteristics. This anthropomor­phic “God-image,” because of its long unchallenged history, resists metaphorization. And meta­phor is the only valid use that that imagery can be allowed to have. Once we use the word “God” we have a hard time conceiving al­ter­native imagery.

[ Note: It’s important to emphasize that in this study I am trying to remain strictly philosophical. I am not rejecting religion … how “religion” may respond to the new understandings we are discovering here is a separate topic altogether. By emphasizing the damaging power of the “G” word I am simply attempting to maintain the in­de­pen­dence of a very fragile, easily derailed speculative imagination, which is the only instrument we have for exploring the sacred depths of reality as it has been revealed to us by science. ]

Once we stop looking for “God,” as the cosmic agent imagined by our tradition and understand that “matter is a living dynamism” and accounts for every structure and function in the universe including our drive to survive and concurrent love of life, we can look at the sacred with altogether new eyes. It is quite different from almost anything that the mainline imagery of our tradition has considered to be “true” of “God.”

The Sacred and the Profane

1.

For people like myself, trained since childhood for the Catholic priesthood, the “sacred” was neatly divided from the “profane” and easily identified because it was thoroughly exhausted in the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

What was sacred was what was declared sacred by the teachings of the ecclesiastical authorities and accepted as sacred by those who submitted to their teaching. “Sacred” was a word, therefore, that labeled a social bond: the Roman Catholic Church, docens et discens, both teaching and listening … and when that bond was broken — when I stopped listening — the word and category became meaningless; the sacred no longer existed. Suddenly, for people like me, nothing was sacred.

The division of reality into sacred and profane has been called a “principle,” following the categorical analysis of social philosophers, like Emile Durkheim. Along with the prestige of his name, saying the distinction between sacred and profane is a “principle” implies that it is grounded in reality, i.e., that there is something intrinsic and necessary about dividing the world into sacred and profane. But in fact it is merely the generalized description of a series of human societies that have, since time immemorial, divided reality into the “sacred and the profane.” So it is not a principle, it is rather a sociological “law” in the sense of a valid description of a repeated pattern of behavior for “larger” societies (not all sub-groups are covered) that, until modern times, seems to have had no exceptions. But it cannot be used as a universal premise from which to deduce incontrovertible conclusions … even when its predictions appear to be confirmed. It’s the nature of a scientific law. The most it can validly claim is that it is an accurate description of observed facts and its predictions have a high degree of probability. It cannot be adduced, for example, to disprove either of its two contraries: that some people may believe everything is sacred, or that some may believe nothing is sacred. Indeed, if the attitude that I once had represents the “truth,” as I believed it did, then the law would be invalidated because for me, temporarily, there was nothing sacred.  On the other hand, perhaps many people will finally come to the same conclusion that I have:   everything is sacred.

The Catholic Church of my formative experience was a perfect example of Durkheim’s sociological law, because it had, at least since the third century of the common era, declared itself to be the only authentic source and repository of the sacred in the universe. “Outside the Church there is no salvation,” was coined by Cyprian of Carthage around 250 ce. It was the same as saying the Church alone is sacred and outside the Church everything is profane. The Church, still to this day in its official documents, claims that anything besides itself that has any sacredness to it at all, has received that sacredness through contact with the Christian message or its ritual … or with Christians whose thoughts and actions had been sacralized by those words and rituals. Until that contact is made and those transformations occur, all of reality remains profane, and being profane according to ancient Christian ideology connotes a measure of corruption; non-Chris­tian reality is un-redeemed, “unregenerate,” under the control of Satan. That means it is not only not-sacred, but it is anti-sacred — actively hostile to the sacred. To one degree or another, non-Christian … and then, after the Reformation, non-Catholic … meant “actively evil.” Thus was the “sacred” made distinct from the “profane” in Western Catholic eyes, a condition that called for a “mission” to transform the profane into the sacred (make everyone Catholic), or if that proved impossible, to preside over their damnation, for the profane had no right to exist. By thus demonizing the existence of non-Catholic, non-Christian, and non-human reality, the core beliefs of the Catholic Church have maintained the perennial justifications for the separation, exploitation and even the extermination of “the profane” which includes all of nature.

A binary system

But notice in the traditional scheme of things: the sacred and the profane are intrinsically bound together in a binary system. You can’t have one without the other; if there were no “sacred,” there would be no “profane” and vice-versa. Once the sacred disappears, the profane disappears with it. We should take note of the transcendent importance of this fact. It means that by doing away with Durkheim’s categories, we immediately do away with the age-old justifications for the traditional hostilities that characterize the human family and condone disregard for species other than man and the earth that spawned us all. It is an absolutely necessary first step on the road to a new way of being-human. So when I thought that nothing is sacred because I realized that the claims of the Catholic Church were false, I also implicitly acknowledged, whether I was aware of it or not, that nothing is profane. Annihilating the sacred/profane dichotomy set me on a promontory with a view of universal reality rarely achieved by religion-bound humans in this vale of tears. By discovering that nothing is sacred I came within reach of its correlate implication which is much more important: nothing is profane.

Once you make that step, and realize there is nothing profane, you have opened a door to a respect and esteem for things (and people) that you may have been taught by your religious tradition to hold in disdain. Words like “respect” and “esteem,” like “cherish” and “love,” come awfully close to what people have in mind when they use the word “sacred.” Opening our eyes to the transcendent significance of that step is the beginning of wisdom: the understanding of what “sacred” really means — that everything is sacred.

2.

So we have stumbled onto a series of paradoxes: the path to understanding that everything is sacred begins by realizing that, in the traditional sense, nothing is sacred. And since the traditional sacred has always been identified with traditional religion, saying nothing is sacred necessarily involves the abandonment of religion in its traditional form. The ultimate paradox is that the universalism that first-century Christians claimed to bring to the religious life of humankind has been vitiated by the sectarian beliefs that have come to define the Christian institution at least since the third century. Clearly we are dealing with two different notions of what “sacred” means, and the traditional, sectarian meaning we are familiar with — which requires a complementary “profane” — is not only at odds with the earlier version but it has clearly displaced it. My rejection of the accepted dichotomy as meaningless represents a first step toward the other. I am on the way toward a new way of being human.

It’s important to keep in mind that both I and Durkheim before me were working off that “traditional” definition of “sacred.” The word “sacred” had been given a sectarian significance by a class-dominated Christianity that was almost two millennia old by modern times and formed the horizon of our lives. We knew nothing else. I contend that the “sacred/profane” dichotomy became a categorical paradigm in Durkheim’s mind because Christianity in its sectarian form dominated the religious environment in which he was formed. From there it was not difficult for him to see that Christianity’s precursors, like Judaism and later Islam, concurred; Christian sectarianism had, in fact, emerged historically from and recapitulated their fundamental assumptions. The “religions of the Book” all divide the world between the sacred and the profane. Asian religions like Jainism, early Buddhism, Taoism are different. They do not fit so easily into that schema.

If we look at the question as a function of logic, my conviction that being “sacred” can only mean being opposed to what is “profane” is really the result of a circular reasoning. The very category is established only by ecclesiastical fiat — an historically conditioned sectarian Christianity taken as a paradigm — and when made to function like a universal “principle” proves only itself. As a premise it is false and misleading. When the term is finally factored out, the equation yields the beginnings of an understanding of the universality of the sacred. A “sacred” that needs a “profane” to make itself intelligible is logically untenable — it floats groundlessly in mid-air — and its effects on the human project, predictably, distorting.

Existence is sacred

If our “classical” sociological definition of “sacred” is indefensible, what then is the true one? The true definition of “sacred” stands on its own.   It has no need for opposition to an imagined “profane.” The sense of the sacred is the primordial human reaction to being-here — existence, LIFE. It is the direct corollary of the irrepressible joy-of-life that accompanies the conatus, the instinct for self-preservation and the inescapable ecstatic embrace of self-identity. It is inescapable because it is embedded in the organic matter of which we are made. It is innate. As such the sacred is revealed as absolutely universal, for all things share that élan, and it is necessarily self-grounded, self-evident, and undeniable. There is nothing profane, as I discovered from my insight that nothing is “sacred,” and therefore no transformation from profane to sacred is required. The spontaneous focus of the conatus’ self-embrace is for the organism to continue to be what it is. To continue in existence as I am is survival. Survival is not optional. It is the “law of nature” that establishes the foundational priority of the sacred. We are in the realm of metaphysical transcendentals here: the sacred is an intrinsic and inalienable property of existence that emanates from the drive to survive. Transcendence — the characteristic of properties that qualify absolutely everything that exists — arises from the very inner depths of mundane reality itself and is intimately identified with it. I am organically predisposed to cherish life.

3.

If the “sacred” is the psychological reflection of the very energy of existence itself, its universality is primordial. How did such a transcendent foundation get trivialized into the sacred / profane dichotomy so characteristic of our religions? Our particular Western Christian way of structuring the sacred-profane divide is rooted in our history. Specifically, it comes from two beliefs inherited from ancient times, each coming from one of the two source cultures which melded in Christianity: (1) the Greek belief that (sacred) spirit “fell” into (profane) matter — the body — a substance distinct from spirit and the cause of all human weakness, corruption and mortality, and (2) the Jewish myth-turned-belief that the events in the garden of Eden literally introduced evil, suffering and death (the profane) into human life, a subsequent corruption of pristine (sacred) reality that reached even to the human spirit. Both were erroneous, but Christians believed them; together they guaranteed that the natural universe including humankind would be considered corrupt and evil without the saving action of the Christian Church.   The Church was sacred, everything else — absolutely everything — was profane. The Greek and Jewish traditions had concurred in this: nature as we know it was the result of an unnatural “fall.” Both agree: the universe is not what it was supposed to be; it had to be “saved” from what it had become and transformed back into what it should have been. “Nature” was corrupt, it needed to be made whole and healthy by something more powerful than nature — something “supernatural.”

Christians then, taking the “fall” as the primary fact of life and the source of all human suffering and mortality, claimed that it was the death of Christ that “saved” us and reversed the effects of the fall. They then said that the Church was the “body of Christ,” the repository and exclusive agent of the “saving power” of Christ’s death through time. This dynamic, in place by the third century, set the clear lines that divided the sacred from the profane for western Christendom for millennia … for me and for everyone else.

4.

But it was not always so. Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians claim is their inspiration, was conspicuous in flouting the customary sacred/profane taboos of the time. In fact, if the gospel accounts can be trusted, it was precisely Jesus’ penchant for disregarding the prohibitions against contact with the profane that was the main cause of contention in his relationship with the Jewish religious authorities: he consorted with “tax collectors and prostitutes,” he performed works of healing and condoned his disciples’ gathering grain on the Sabbath, he healed lepers, the possessed, the blind and crippled, a hemorrhaging woman … all of whom were considered unclean, “sinners,” and were to be avoided. Some of the most moving stories about Jesus recounted his characteristic way of treating the “profane” as if they were “sacred:” the story of the prodigal son, the woman taken in adultery, his friendliness with the Samaritan woman at the well, the gentile woman in Sidon who asked him to heal her daughter.

It seems Jesus knew that nothing was profane without having to get there by the “back door” — by way of thinking that nothing was sacred. Everything in his demeanor and what he said indicates that he had a profound understanding of the primordiality and the universality of the sacred. For Jesus, everyone and everything was sacred, nothing was profane.

Some people attribute this to a “special knowledge” he had because he was “God.” But there is nothing in the narratives to indicate that he was telling people something they had never heard of or did not immediately recognize as human and completely familiar. This was not an esoteric “gnosis,” it was the fundamental message that Jesus had gleaned from his formation, life and experience as a Jew who knew the story of his people and the poetry of the prophets who interpreted that story. Jesus had no knowledge that was not available and familiar to all. If there was any source of his simple wisdom outside of his personal experience and family formation, it was the Jewish religion as practiced in Palestine of the first century ce. His vision was entirely human, profoundly human.

The only thing “divine” about him was the depth of his humanity. He was one of us, no more no less. The claim that Jesus was “God” is just another alienating tactic designed to excuse refusal to embrace the natural humanity that we all have. The kind of humanity Jesus was talking about is familiar to us all; and we have all met many people of other traditions and no tradition, who live it with an ease and simple joy that owes nothing to the “sacred” beliefs, rituals and practices hawked by the Catholic Church. Jesus, like any good Jew is a mensch — a human being. That’s all he’s talking about: be a mensch, be what you are. Be a human being. Being a human being means recognizing that being human the way Jesus was human is completely natural; it means living with the understanding that everything is sacred.