Christian universalism (IV)

the mystery of being-here: creation or emergence; spirit

3,450 words

3.

Understanding what it’s like to have faith is an entirely interior event. Religion is about relationship and as with all relationships, no one can speak authentically about it who has not experienced it. The very nature of relationship, except for its observable and measurable “exterior effects,” is its interior content: the shared reality ― whatever it might be ― between the parties. In the case of the existential relationship, the shared reality is the empty being-here of the recipient ― its conditioned human life. Its dependent “self” is the content of the transaction. Its “self” belongs as much to the donor as the recipient and it doesn’t cease belonging to the donor upon being received. That is the source of its emptiness. The recipient doesn’t entirely own itself.

The content is what the parties related to one another “carry back and forth,” which is the transactional sense evoked by the underlying Latin verb “re-ferre, re-latus.” In the faith relationship the content “traded” and shared is existence itself, what I am calling being-here. What is being given and received is being-here, life. And while this unique and precious commodity is quite deeply appreciated and intimately cherished by the individual recipient, the donating source ― the provider(s), the co-owner(s) ― remains unknown. What provides being-here is not apparent, and the faith that is its recognition has relied on socially available confirmation, imagery and symbols for its expression: hence it is clothed in the language, ritual and story of the local community ― its religion ― and differs from culture to culture. But the general dynamics ― the operating forces, the “carrying back and forth,” the giving and receiving, the recognition of common ownership, the faith ― are the same for all regardless of locality or culture; faith is universal.

Inter-personal

In the human domain those dynamics are what we call “inter-personal.” Faith is the acknowledgement of an existential relationship seen from the side of the recipient whose very person ― one’s very self ― in perceiving itself as being received, simultaneously adumbrates itself in that same act as having been given. The experience triggers a spontaneous evocation of awe, gratitude and a sense of being embraced by the unknown donating source(s). It is absolutely unavoidable and undeniable. All human beings aware of their dependency know this experience. It is universal.

But what does personal mean when there is no humanoid “person” on which the existential dependency is known to rest? To answer that question is one of the principal goals of these reflections. It is the source of the most common confusion in this area: since the operating dynamic from the side of the receiver is necessarily “personal” (for it makes the human person to be-here and to be supremely grateful), it has been assumed that the existential source was also “personal” and “benevolent.” The fact that there is no consensus among the world’s religions in that regard has not been appreciated, and in the West, especially, rejected categorically. In our times science seems to concur with the view that the only “persons” involved in providing existence were the human ones from whom one is descended.

The West insists the source of being here must be a god-“person.” Well, of course, all the western religions derive from “the Book” and are built on an ancient pre-scientific narrative that imagined a personal god who created the world with a purposeful plan like any craftsman, freed the Hebrews from enslavement to the Egyptians, accompanied them in their conquest of Palestine, gives moral commands, expects to be obeyed and answers prayers in anticipation of rewarding or punishing people for their conduct. Such pre-scientific guesswork ― com­mon sense as it may have been at one time ― is completely inconsistent with the discoveries of modern science. No one in ancient times saw “God” creating the world. We now know we live in an evolving universe constructed entirely of material energy whose organic elaborations (all the known species of living things) are driven solely by the compulsion to be-here, an energy intrinsic to matter. The “common-sense” conjecture of our ancestors that a super-human architect and craftsman was responsible for all this amounted to a primitive “science,” meaning a concrete physical explanation of how the construction actually took place, not a metaphysics. (By metaphysics I mean a theory of abstract [conceptually structured] causation).   They cannot be faulted for making a plausible guess under the circumstances. But, as science, it is no longer valid; we now know that it never happened like that. Construction took place in another way altogether: evolution.

Creation or emergence?

It must be acknowledged, moreover, that the very idea of creation ― the conceptual structure that corresponded to what the ancients thought creation meant ― was derived from and remains wedded to that that mistaken science. “Craftsman” and “creation” are correlative notions that refer to concretely imagined events. You cannot suddenly admit that the “ancient science” was faulty but continue to assert that the belief in “creation,” as a concept, was not. The very idea of creation ― and I mean to include in this idea the thought, planning, and intended purpose for the thing created ― came from the imagery. If you change the image of a rational craftsman who does things for a purpose, the idea of what creation is ― the conceptual and epistemic structure ― changes in tandem. With evolution, the word and concept “creation” no longer embody the reality of the way being-here is known to be shared between source and recipient, because the features derived from rationally applied construction are no longer there.

The new imagery is provided by what is now known to be the actual process ― the “transaction” ― that made all the structures, forces, features and species of living organisms of the known universe to be-here as they are: the evolution of living matter. The action is not one of “creation,” it is one of autonomous self-emer­gence. It is the spontaneous expansive activity of a living matter whose non-personal, non-intentional, non-purposeful dynamism is locked into an unchanging energy of growth and intensification. Life moves in only one direction: more life.

With the transmission of being-here by the evolution of living matter and not by a craftsman’s planned, purposeful creation, the new emergent “thing” transmitted remains as much a part of what did the transmitting (the evolving) as what emerged. In this conception immanence takes on a concrete imagery: the emergent species always remains nested and embraced (like a sponge in the sea) by what gave it rise: living matter. The “new thing” emerges incrementally; it never stops being the “old thing” even as, little by little, it becomes unmistakably what it now is and is not what it came from. And in the case of humankind the perception of emptiness includes all the co-dependent co-arising factors ― human and non-human “causes” ― that are active in the emergence of the human organism. The human being knows that it is, undeniably, a biological organism, the direct offspring not only of its human ancestors, but also of a multitude of other things in this cosmos. The human organism always remains comprised exclusively of the sub-atomic particles, valences, forces and fields from which it emerged and whose continued functioning is necessary for its own continued existence. Its “self” always remains what it was made of, even as it launches itself as autonomous.

4.

The Philosophical Inversion

The conceptual change implied by the change in the scientific description also affects our traditional philosophical assumptions. And in one key respect it actually inverts them. This is significant, so let me digress briefly and try to explain.

The assumptions of Greek philosophy made since the days of Plato are that “things” are what they are by dint of their “essence.” Essence was believed to be the idea of the “thing” that was implanted in it by its creator. Since the Creator was believed to be rational and functioned like a craftsman, the idea of a thing was itself derived from the purpose the craftsman had in mind when s/he created that thing. The idea and the purpose were the same; they were the “essence” of that thing.

That “essence” was spiritual because it was an idea. An idea was the product of a “mind” and since the mind was believed to be a spirit, the ideas it produced were also said to be spiritual items ― which is the way we think we experience them, i.e., as immaterial.. An idea does not occupy space, it is able to co-penetrate matter co-existing in the same “place” without contact or displacement. It is absolutely universal and denotes every instance of its essence without exception: the idea of horse includes every horse that ever was, is or will be. It is also uncomposed; it is not made of parts and so cannot decompose (implicitly it is therefore immortal). Matter, on the other hand, cannot occupy the same space, is limited to the one and only concrete thing that it is, is composed of parts which disintegrate ending the “identity” of the thing.

This “world-view” promoted first by Plato and continued in slightly modified form by Aristotle, defined western thinking from about 350 bce until the modern era. It is really only since Darwin’s proposals about evolution in the 19th century that it has become generally accepted that all of the foundational priorities assumed by “essentialism” are completely wrong. As it has become increasingly irrefutable that matter is self-elabora­ting, the need to have “idea-essences” in order to explain why things do what they do is superfluous. Matter does what it does because it is driven to be-here by its own internal material energy and the forms that it assumes and the abilities it produces are in response to what works ― what allowed it to be-here.

Under the Platonic philosophía perennis, reality was made of two separate and completely dissimilar substances, matter and spirit, and was described in a series of conceptual dyads: act and potency, prime matter and essential form, body and soul, essence and existence. In each of these pairs one side corresponded to immaterial ideas and the other to its material partner.   Notice that it dovetailed with the “rational craftsman” theory of universal construction. They were all different ways of imagining how the ideal immaterial “reality” in the universe interacted with matter. In all cases, spirit was the guiding element ― the immaterial idea coming from the craftsman’s immaterial mind; and the trailing, dead and inert “empty receptacle” which received the enlivening directions coming from the immaterial idea, was matter.   Matter in itself, without form, was dead, inert, lifeless, shapeless, not unlike soft and pliable clay in the hands of the potter. Matter could be acted upon but could not act. Matter was pure empty potential that brought nothing whatsoever to the composite except the ability to be molded, shaped, directed and activated by the idea-form-essence / source of life.

There was a scholastic maxim: existence comes through the form. What comes first in an essentialist world is the idea ― the “whatness” of a thing: that which makes a thing to be what it is, gives it life and therefore explains what it does. And in all cases “what” something was, was determined by the purpose for which it was made by its maker, the idea in the mind of the artisan.   Aristotle called it the “final cause” because it determined the end to which the “thing” was designated. The contribution of the material receptacle into which the essential form was “poured” was precisely its emptiness: its shapelessness and its malleability: its non-determinateness and its readiness to being shaped by form; its inertness and need to be enlivened by spirit. Form worked on matter as a potter’s mental plan on soft, wet clay. But although matter had to ultimately yield to the shaping power of form, the resistance it offered engaged and intensified form’s activity, giving a focus and creativity to the resulting composite that drove the evolving history of the cosmos. (The last image was the contribution of Henri Bergson to the philosophía perennis early in the 20th century, in a book called Creative Evolution. Despite its title, it was a reaffirmation of traditional creationist dualism.)

Essentia-lism was an IDEA-lism. It was dominated by the primary and guiding reality of ideas, and by the spirit-minds that generated and understood them. Ideas and spirit-minds were real. They carried and transmitted being. Matter gave an edge and creativity to being only by its resistance to it; it was a kind of non-being. The Neo-Platonists of the second and third centuries imagined Being like pure brilliant light shining from its source (the “One”) into an infinite darkness of non-being and enlightening whatever it touched in proportion to its distance from the source of light. Hence the cosmos was populated with a hierarchy of “things,” combinations of darkness and light, that differed from one another in brilliance to the degree that they more closely or more remotely reflected the brilliance of the “One.”

The philosophical inversion I speak of occurred when the world realized that ideas are not things, and minds are not entities separate from the bodies they inhabit. There are no “essences.” Ideas are the mental states of the brains of human organisms, and minds are the self-perceived identity behind that activity. Evolution is not the creative result of “spirit” overcoming a resistant “matter” and there are no “idea-plans” or purposes implanted in things by a some celestial Potter. It is living matter itself obeying its own inner dynamism to be-here whose incremental micro-adjustments of its own inner components result in combinations that survive when they match the support potential in the surrounding environment. That is what is occurring in evolution. If I were to use the traditional scholastic terminology, the conceptual relationships are turned on their heads. The “form” or shape that something has does not determine how it will survive, it is in stumbling upon the combinations that survive that gives to things the form and characteristics that they have. That means, in scholastic terms, being does not come through the form, form is the result of the struggle to be-here, form comes through being; essence does not precede existence, it is the other way around: existence precedes essence. In other words, it was in discovering how to be-here that things developed the shape, abilities and characteristics that they have. This turns the philoso­phía perennis on its head.

5.

These developments in our common understanding have resulted in the realization that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is superfluous, scientifically speaking. If once upon a time, the idea of spirit was necessary to explain both what things are and how they got here, that is no longer the case. And the simple application of Ockham’s razor ― eliminating unnecessary factors in our explanations ― calls for a re-thinking of exactly what reality is made of.

This creates a dilemma. If spirit was a “theory” that was once the best explanation of the cosmic process, but now is no longer needed, it is quite possible that it doesn’t really exist at all and may never have been the object of our experience as we once believed. We also once believed that the sun revolved around the earth, but no longer. We can be deluded.

But the issue is complex and far from resolved. Spirit’s role in emergence, is one thing. But there are other areas where “spirit” cannot be so easily dismissed. How do we explain our unique human abilities: self-consciousness and self-identity, thinking, imagination, appreciation of beauty, morality, the pursuit of truth, the desire for immortality and the love that forms the steel hoops that grapple us to our friends and families? There are those who would call such things illusion. I do not. There is no way to deny what we experience, and no amount of sophistry a la Daniel Dennett,[1] can eliminate the reality of a dimension of this cosmos, internally observable to humans, that we have traditionally attributed to a separate spirit. To say that the existence of spirit as a separate kind of reality opposed to matter is no longer needed to explain the cosmos does not necessarily prove either (1) that such a thing does not exist (with another function) or (2) that spirit may not bear a relationship to matter that is different from the “substance”-definition and the associated total separation and opposition imagined by our Platonic forebears.

It is this latter alternative that appears to me to be the most compatible with both the discoveries of science and our own undeniable experience. I believe there is no such separate “thing” or immaterial “substance” called spirit; truly spiritual phenomena exist, but they are the emanations of a property of matter that we had ignored, fatally distracted by the prejudices of our Platonic, Cartesian dualist tradition which denigrated matter as dead, inert and passive.

Transcendent Materialism

Stone reductionists, like Daniel Dennett who are willing to call us “robots” or “zombies” and claim our interior experience of consciousness is an illusion rather than question the mechanistic materialism that he subscribes to, are one group. Unfortunately, the word materialism without qualification, has been identified with that position alone. Many believe that it is impossible to salvage that word for other applications and suggest the use a different term altogether for a reality that is, in fact, comprised of the potential for both kinds of phenomena: spiritual and material. They propose we call this alternative view “neutral monism,” in order to emphasize that (1) it is not a dualism because there is only one kind of substance in the universe, and that (2) that one substance is neither what we used to call “spirit” nor what we used to call “matter.” It is neutral. It is some other thing with the properties of both.

Currently we do not have a word for this view.  I call it Transcendent Materialism: “materialism” because whatever “spiritual” phenomena are-here, are exclusively the emanations of a property of matter; “transcendent” because this potential is responsible for matter evolving — transcending one form and bringing forth other, unique, autonomous and definitive forms. “Transcendent Materialism” explains emergence.

Frankly, I am impatient with those who continue to use the word “materialism” simplistically without qualification to mean physicalist reductionism. There has been enough discussion in academic forums on neutral monism in our times to warrant acknowledge­ment of multiple meanings to “materialism.”

Transcendent materialists look on the spiritual not as a “thing” or substance but as a phenomenon ― an undebatable reality of experience. We are materialists, but for us matter itself even in its simplest most primitive forms has the potential for what it eventually displays after eons of evolutionary complexification: life and consciousness. We adduce the ancient principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit,” which means “nothing comes from nothing” to explain the etiology.  In other words, if “B” truly emerges from “A” and from “A” alone, then the full explanation for “B” must exist in “A.”[2] Whatever it is that is responsible for what we once attributed to a separate spirit, is actually a property of matter. Hence matter, in total contrast to what Plato and Descartes were saying, is far from inert, lifeless and passive. Matter is the bearer of LIFE and thought.

Now we understand the reason why being-here is only and always a perception of the sensory apparatus of the conscious organism: “Spirit” is a material reality. Spinoza said it in his own way in 1665: “Extension is an attribute of God; God is an extended thing.” (Ethics, Part II, proposition II).

 

[1] Daniel C. Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005. Chapter 1, “The Zombic Hunch” passim.

[2] Galen Strawson, “Realistic Monism” in Strawson et al., Consciousness and its place in Nature, Imprint-Academic, Charlottesville VA, 2006, pp 3 – 31. The entire essay is an elaboration of ex nihilo, nihil fit.

Spacetime in an Expanding Universe

This is a continuation of the post of Aug 19th on Transcendent Materialism; it was revised on Sept 1.  

2,500 words

The few short paragraphs quoted below are from an information website called space.com. The fact that space expands and advances simultaneously with matter is well known and can be found stated in many places, but it is expressed particularly well here. It parallels what I have been saying about time and suggests that matter and spacetime are not two separate and distinct “things” but rather that spacetime is a product of matter’s continuous emerging presence, precisely because matter’s core energy is transcendentally existential, i.e., that continuing to be-here from one moment to the next is a positive physical event generated by matter. Matter’s continuity in time is not a passive “non-happening,” a mere continuity; being-here is an active event produced by existential energy. Matter actively and autonomously perdures in existence and emanates spacetime creating a “place” for itself and a “now” where before there had been nothing.

The Big Bang did not occur as an explosion in the usual way one thinks about such things, despite what one might gather from its name. The universe did not expand into space, as space did not exist before the universe, according to NASA. Instead, it is better to think of the Big Bang as the simultaneous appearance of space everywhere in the universe. The universe has not expanded from any one spot since the Big Bang — rather, space itself has been stretching, and carrying matter with it. [1]

Please be aware of the metaphorical nature of that last sentence. Space does not “stretch” or “carry.” They are words intended to evoke the simultaneity between matter’s presence and spacetime. A different metaphor ― one suggested by transcendent materialism ― might use the word “exude.” As matter emerges into existence it can be said to exude spacetime as the cocoon that enwraps it, the vehicle (the “carriage”) it which it rides, the nimbus or aura that surrounds it like a cloud, the radiance that emanates from its creative action.

Since the universe by its definition encompasses all of space and time as we know it, NASA says it is beyond the model of the Big Bang to say what the universe is expanding into or what gave rise to the Big Bang. Al­though there are models that speculate about these questions, none of them have made realistically testable predictions as of yet.[2]

The gaps in knowledge referred to here, I believe, derive from the necessary limitations of physics. The sciences begin with existence as a given. They do not question it, therefore what it is flies under their radar. They do not understand autonomous emergent existence as a physical event and therefore it is not even considered as the source of spacetime. All they can do is observe the correlation ― the simultaneity ― they have no way of identifying the causality.

These descriptions are difficult for us to imagine because we have pre-formed images of reality stemming from our ancient dualist metaphysics that are incorrect; we considered being to be a creative “idea” and single act in the distant past but not a physical, material event occurring now in real time. Similarly, we cannot picture matter as producing spacetime because we think of matter as passive and inert; matter in the dualist worldview can’t create anything. With no physical “cause” of space we had to think of space as a pre-existing “region” (created by “God”?) and time as prior to and independent of matter’s duration ― an independent outside measurement of matter’s continuity ― rather than, in both cases, its products, its emanations.

We also tend to think of existence as a onetime thing accomplished in the distant past. We assimilated the “big bang” to the archaic notion of a “moment of creation” by a rational divine Craftsman ― a single occurrence that happened long ago, and that all subsequent motion is simply passive inert matter coasting on the kinetic energy imparted to it by the initial explosion. According to transcendent materialism, however, existence is in fact an ongoing, continually emerging series of physical events occuring in real time wherever matter is found, because matter is in reality an autonomous living energy that, far from being the result of, was itself responsible for, the big bang. “Creation,” the autonomous, physical, self-transcending self-extrusion of every particle of matter’s energy, is going on right now from moment to moment everywhere, wherever there is matter pressing its being-here forward into ― and thus creating ― the next moment, and sequential spacetime is the way we experience it.

The key to the new imagery is to accept that existence is a material act, a physical function of a material energy. Once we allow ourselves to understand matter as physical energy, and specifically existential energy, (meaning the positive and abundantly expanding force that overcomes nothingness), then it is not so difficult to understand that matter emits spacetime as the sweat of its labors, the vapor trail of its lift-off into nothingness.

There is no such thing as nothingness; but there is a conceptual clarity brought by the illustration. “Conquest over nothingness” is the metaphorical translation of the spontaneous human perception of the “positivity” of being-here. That existence is a positive force means that we know instinctively (connaturally) that none of us nor any of what we see around us has to be here. That remains true for us moment after moment. Nothing has to be-here and that implies that energy has to be expended moment after moment in order to make something be-here. Existential energy is activated continually and our human experience of matter enduring includes the spacetime that is its corona ― its emanation.

Another aspect of this physical/metaphysical position is the exclusively human perception of the supreme significance of the present moment. Humans understand connaturally that to be-here is radically limited to “now” and only now. Humans have a privileged position from which to observe the phenomenon precisely because they are themselves conscious observant matter. It is their own existential emergence in time that they know internally to be undeniable for they experience their own conscious presence moving forward in time. They know when they are-here and when they are not for they know what it feels like to be-here. They know that the past, no matter how recent, is no longer here, and that the future does not as yet exist. Existence is absolutely confined to the present moment. Despite the mathematical ratiocinations of some theoretical physicists,[3] people spontaneously dismiss any notion that existence is not confined to “now” or that “now” does not exist.

With regard to matter’s existential energy being inexhaustible which I claim is true even after all other energy gradients have been reduced to equilibrium (in agreement with the first law of thermodynamics), there is this additional corroborating information found in the same citation from space.com:

If the density of the universe exactly equals the critical density, then the geometry of the universe is “flat” with zero curvature like a sheet of paper, according to NASA. If so, the universe has no bounds and will expand forever, but the rate of expansion will gradually approach zero after an infinite amount of time. Recent measurements suggest that the universe is flat with only a 2 percent margin of error.[4]

 

In a recent article edited and reprinted by Aeon Magazine entitled “No Absolute Time,”[5] the relativity of time (i.e., that time is perceived differently at different “places” in the universe), elaborated mathematically by Einstein’s theory in 1905 and anticipated in more general terms in the 18th century by David Hume, would be supported by the claim of transcendent materialism that matter’s very sequential presence, which we humans experience as time, is a result of a series of imperceptibly discrete physical events. As a physical event initiated by each particle of matter, the continuous material emergence of existence itself makes temporal sequence relative to each particle’s location, direction and velocity. Time will appear differently to observers depending on where ― in which portion of matter and under what conditions ― emergence into existence is occurring. This consistency with current scientific thinking serves as a corroboration of the metaphysical claims of transcendent materialism. Matter is not passive, dead and inert; it is an inexhaustible “living” existential energy.[6]

The moment of creation

These reflections on the nature and action of matter’s energy, lift a veil on the reality we experience everyday. The humdrum, boring business of “passing time” when supposedly nothing is happening, actually turns out to be our distracted attendance at the very moment of creation. “Now” is the “place” where existence is actuating itself in all the things with which we live, move and have our being. It reveals that creation was not something accomplished at some point in the distant past, but is an ongoing event occurring before our eyes and experienced directly by us as we emerge into physical existence now. Time “passing” is our experience of the continuous extrusion of existence by matter’s autonomous transcendent energy and that includes the matter of our own biological organisms.

This is extremely significant for us. That our own lowly flesh, so shamefully denigrated and merilessly flayed over millennia by the worshippers of an arrogant disdainful imaginary “spirit,” should now be finally recognized as the autonomous endless engine of LIFE and the place where LIFE enters the world, opens the doors to a self-apprecia­tion that was our birthright but which our Western mindset has ever denied us. Now we understand what our bodies have been trying to tell us with their hunger to be-here and what we have suppressed by embracing the Platonic paradigm. We realize this treasure we carry in vessels of clay is the very energy of LIFE itself. It invites us to a contemplative self-embrace that, from the moment it is experienced, reverberates throughout our organism in a realization that is self-explanatory and self-confirm­ing. Once we pass through that door, we are not likely to return to a world where our bodies are treated as dead and putrifying, contaminating everything around them. We know we are home because now we know what being home feels like … .

We belong here with our material siblings spawned from the earth. We have no need to go any­where else or do anything our bodies were not made for; for in experiencing the continuity of time our very bodies, made of matter, are participating in the welling up and overflow of LIFE. The stillness of “now,” so cherished by contemplatives, reflects matter’s temporary achievement of absolute existential equilibrium in the present moment dissipating its energy by filling the void of nothingness. Suffused with the security and serenity of “now” our organism’s innate creativity can emerge naked and unafraid, exploring a vulnerability it otherwise could not afford to leave unprotected. The tranquility of a “now” understood as the place where being-here emerges in the freshness and power of the first instant, is like a “worm hole” to another dimension of reality, one that intersects our horizontal evolution vertically like a needle injecting LIFE. It is the invisible engine throbbing endlessly at the core of matter. When we understand what matter is, we realize that we have been walking on a field with a treasure buried in it. (These images are all metaphors trying to describe a subjective realization, they do not refer to the metaphysical structure of matter’s energy.)

Our sense of the sacred which we had mistakenly identified exclusively with the narratives of our ancient pre-scientific religious tradition, is not demolished by the scientific discovery that those stories were mythic, but is rather enhanced, intensified and grounded more firmly. Science as interpreted by a cosmo-ontology (metaphysics based on transcendent materialism), pictures a universe made of living material energy, autonomously evolving ever new forms of itself: living organisms, newly organized and equipped to pursue matter’s obsessive embrace of being-here.

Physics examines what is-here and analyzes how it is internally interrelated. Metaphysics, on the other hand, interprets what being-here means to us. In acknowledging the need to pursue that task as a central and absolute condition of our full sanity, metaphysics establishes that for humans self-embrace necessarily has a cognitive dimension, for our organisms are suffused with cognition. There is no perception, experience, thought or action that is not simultaneously a product of mind. We are material organisms that are both conscious and self-con­scious.

We cannot be integrally human if we do not understand that our conscious/self-con­scious biological organisms are the emergent forms of material energy evolving through time. We are a function of being-here, and everything we are is conditioned by it. Where it goes we go. Its destiny is ours. Every particle of transcendent matter that comprises us has been here at least since the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, and will be-here endlessly. As we embrace what we are in the “now” that only we can understand, we realize that the endlessness that characterizes material existence is ours, for we are THAT. Being-here-now anticipates all the nows that await us. In embracing it ― in understanding that we are home now ― we realize that we will always be home.

 

[1] https://www.space.com/52-the-expanding-universe-from-the-big-bang-to-today.html (Space.com is an “info-entertainment” project of Futureplc [https://www.futureplc.com/], a global multi-platform media company.)

[2] Ibid

[3] Physicist Carlo Rovelli in his 2017 book The Order of Time has a chapter entitled “The End of the Present” (p.38 ff.) in which he makes the extraordinary claim that “Not only is there no single time for different places — there is not even a single time for any particular place.” (p.40)

As far as the first part is concerned he acknowledges on p.43: “The notion of ‘the present’ refers to things that are close to us, not to anything that is far away. Our ‘present’ does not extend throughout the universe. It is like a bubble around us.” That is exactly what is meant by the relativity of time explained in the Aeon article cited above. I agree with it completely. The transcendent materialism that I espouse, in fact, provides a metaphysics that supports and explains it.

However, with regard to the second part of his claim that there is no “present” even locally, I would have to say, frankly, his presentation is incoherent. His “proof” is a set of unconnected statements that have no justification beyond the arbitrary diagrams he himself has created to explain them. One might get the impression that Rovelli is indulging in the trendy pastime of debunking the common intuitions of humankind based on nothing but his status as a “scientist” and feels no responsibility to make himself intelligible.

Rovelli doesn’t even claim to have proven his thesis. He acknowledges that the only solid conclusion he can draw is: “A common present does not exist.” (pp.50, 55) I agree, and I have stated that repeatedly. That our perception of time is relative to its various local iterations is the key take-away in all this. His final words sum it up: “Is not what ‘exists’ precisely what is here ‘in the present’ “? (p.55) If the answer to his question is “yes,” then to insist that “there is no present” would be to declare that there is no existence emerging from moment to moment ― that there is nothing here.

[4] Op.cit. “space.com” see fn.1

[5] https://aeon.co/essays/what-albert-einstein-owes-to-david-humes-notion-of-time?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=261a81cfdf-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_08_19_06_45&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-261a81cfdf-68964173

[6] See fn.3 above

 

Materialism and Spirituality

Reflections on the fallacy of common assumptions

2000 words

For readers of spiritual literature it is not surprising to find statements that accept the existence of the human spirit as axiomatic. Sometimes such declarations are grounded on a more basic metaphysical worldview, but more often they are offered without further justification except for the force of practice, an unassailable ascetical premise. Belief in spirit is considered a dynamic necessity for spiritual growth, regardless of the metaphysics.

The message is implicitly anti-materialist and is justified as the fruit of experience not speculation. if you are serious about advancing spiritually, they claim, you have to acknowledge that you are NOT your body. Since control and training of bodily urges is central to all ascetical practice, it is a common assumption that the practitioner must confront the body as if it were alien ― something “other” than one’s self. I can control my body because I AM NOT my body. Thus belief in spirit enters by the back door.

The point of this essay is to affirm that the same dynamic of practice can and does function well and perhaps even better in a world that is exclusively material. This is more than an academic exercise or personal preference of mine. For, while the material energy that comprises all things is capable of producing an amazing and unexpected range of behavioral phenomena including what we have traditionally called “spiritual,” there is no evidence of the existence of a separate kind of “thing” called “spirit.” If, as science suggests, there is nothing but matter’s energy, then there must be a way to explain and sustain historical ascetical practice, otherwise thousands of years of attested human transformation would, implausibly, have to be dismissed as illusion. Whatever the metaphysics might be, the traditional practices work. If it is also true as science claims that we are not “other” than our bodies, then there must be a way to understand how both can be true.

Matter’s consistency with traditional goals

Two principal aims of traditional spirituality, the objectification of one’s own body for the purposes of its control and training, and the practitioner’s personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism, can be achieved in an exclusively material universe without having recourse to belief in a separable human “spirit,” or projecting the existence of a separate world.

First, my total identification as matter does not in any way necessitate that I identify exclusively with my particular body. As a matter of fact, identifying my body as comprised of the selfsame particles that comprise everything else in the material cosmos tends to de-emphasize the particularity that my intense spontaneous urges for self-protection and self-aggrandizement seem to imply. The feelings they elicit are ephemeral and therefore, spiritually speaking, their demands for satisfaction are bogus. If every particle of my organism is a generic entity, entirely replaceable by other particles of the same type, it is much more difficult to assign my feeling of unique­ness to anything more objective than the minor variations that differentiate my organism from other “things.” All “things,” not only human beings, are made of exactly the same clay.   The insistence on existence ― the drive to survive ― is common to us all. Nothing justifies the priority I am inclined to give myself.

The Buddhist claim that the metaphysically independent, stand-alone “self” is an illusion, is supported by this scientific description of reality as material energy. In fact, no “thing” of any kind in our universe is only “itself” according to science, since all things are comprised of the same material energy. Buddhists have been saying this at least since the Mahayana Reform at the beginning of the common era. Buddhists, however, do not adduce the common material base as the reason for it; rather, they point to the multiplicity of “causes” that conspire in the “arising” of any phenomenon. Regardless, the fact of universally shared matter implicitly includes the dynamic interactions ― the “dependent co-arising” ― characteristic of material elements. In both descriptions, the “self” is absorbed into a totality-in-process which Buddhist teachers like Thich Naht Hahn claim is the point of meditation: to come to a full cognitive-affective realization of one’s identity with all things. Knowing that I am pure material energy ― whole cloth with the rest of the universe ― accomplishes exactly that.

This brings us to the second supposed unique achievement of belief in spirit: the personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism. All major traditions ultimately agree on the goal of human transformation: universal love and compassion for all things.

Traditions like Christianity which are metaphysically dualist in nature (because they believe there are two distinct kinds of “stuff” in the universe, matter and spirit), assign the human self to the spiritual realm not just because human activity transcends the limits found in other entities and organisms, but because they attribute that transcendence to a metaphysical source: a separable “soul” that is made of spirit not matter. Spirit is further believed to be the “stuff” that comprises a multitude of invisible entities variously called angels or devils and includes the highest entity and source of all things spiritual: “God” theorized to be pure Spirit. By identifying oneself as spirit, therefore, one identifies oneself with “God” and thus is metaphysically predisposed to the kind of generosity, compassion and creativity characteristic of spirit. Besides, by realizing that one is not matter, domination of the body’s insistent urges is rationalized: there is a reason why the mind can and should dominate the body. Thus many Christians (and other dualist traditions) see belief in spirit as uniquely foundational for the pursuit of “perfection” which is to live morally, to love and to give as “God” does.

Other traditions, like Hinduism, which are more accurately described as a spiritual monism (because they believe that all things including matter are ultimately illusory manifestations of an underlying universal Spirit they call “Atman” or Self), claim that belief in spirit is simply acknowledgement of what is really real. The body is an illusion. The human “self” (atman) is the evolutionary emergence of the underlying Universal “Self.” And it is only through meditation that this identification can be brought to consciousness and firmly established in the practice of daily living with justice, love and compassion. The Great “Self” is thought to be “Mind” not matter, and therefore the human mind is similarly not matter. This grounds the dynamic of the ascetic pursuit of self-control leading to self-transformation into the “first principle.” Matter is ultimately resolvable into Spirit.

In contrast with both these traditions, Buddhists quite intentionally avoid ultimate metaphysical worldviews as distractions from and hindrances to the principal goal of ascetical practice: the realization and full acceptance of all reality including one’s “self” as impermanent.   The full acceptance of impermanence reality as it is ― is, for Buddhists, the end of sorrow and the beginning of compassion and loving kindness for all things. All suggestions that there is a way out of this impermanence for oneself are obstacles to nirvana which is identified with the “letting go” of any clinging or craving for permanence that would enthrone the “self” ― the conceit of “I am” ― which is the self-inflicted source of all suffering.

“Mendicants, when the perception of impermanence is developed and cultivated it eliminates all desire for sensual pleasures, for rebirth in the realm of luminous form, and for rebirth in a future life. It eliminates all ignorance and eradicates all conceit ‘I am’.[1]

Some may think that by encouraging the practitioner’s identification with the totality, that Buddhists have somehow “found a way out” of the impermanence ― and that the totality represents a permanence that the parts do not. Not at all. For the impermanence evident in the flow of day to day reality is equally applicable to the totality as a totality. The totality itself is impermanent and, according to all scientific predictions, will eventually run out of energy and metamorphose into something that is utterly unrecognizable to current definitions and descriptions of reality.

Negative effects of belief in “spirit”

On the negative side, there are reasons why belief in spirit has been and may continue to be a damaging and dangerous thing. The feeling of alienation, what I have called in other places an autogenic disease, wherein the human organism identifies its own body as alien, can push efforts for the control of bodily urges into self destructive territory. Practitioners who believe they are spiritual “souls” trapped in dungeons of flesh are justified by the metaphysics alone in loathing, denying, negating, and ultimately punishing, torturing, damaging and even killing their own bodies. A case could be made for saying that even when carried out in the most rational and emotionally detached way, alienated dualist metaphysics guarantees that the efforts will be repressive and therefore ultimately ineffective. So that even from the point of view of bodily control, the belief is counter-indica­ted. Many of us reading this today have experienced in our own flesh the damaging effects of these beliefs. This is not just speculation.

Similarly, in the spiritist worldview what is true in one’s attitudes toward oneself is applied with all the more rigor when it comes to other people. Having accepted that self-loathing is part of self-control, the practitioner has little hesitation in inflicting pain on others with the justification that “it will give them a healthy distance on their bodies.” Humiliation, isolation, the denial of affection and constant denigration heaped on those for whom the ascetic has “spiritual” responsibility are deemed necessary for the lowering of self-esteem which is routinely confused with the egotistical self-projection of the mindless conatus. Thus belief in spirit tends to prevent the loving embrace of our organic nature, which in some traditions contradicts the doctrines of creation being the gift and image of a loving “God.”

We need also to be constantly reminded of the disastrous ecological implications of the belief in spirit. For by attributing all value to spirit and denigrating matter as inferior and corrupting of human aspirations, the earth itself with its multitude of other biological species, plant and animal, is disdained except as it might serve humankind. It is of absolutely no concern to the spiritist if any number of species “irrelevant” to human survival or utility were to disappear. No life form other than man is respected for itself. The result has been the ever increasing deterioration of the water, air, soil and climate that all species rely on for their sustenance. I don’t think it is far-fetched in the least to attribute our environmental crisis directly, if not exclusively, to belief in the existence of separable “spirit” and the anthropocentrism that resulted from it. It paradoxically spurred our self-serving technology (which has kept many of us alive well past our otherwise expected time-of-life) even as it conspired to disregard other species and the life-supporting resources of the planet.

We are not the gods we would like to think we are. The rest of creation does not have to bow down and serve us. We are matter ― an integral part of an impermanent material universe. Our survival is bound up with the survival of all.

Now, the point of this reflection has been to suggest that belief in a transcendent materialism dovetails with the dynamic goals of the spiritual aspirations of our many religious traditions. Does it prove that “there is nothing but matter”? No. But it shows that belief that I am my body does not necessarily inhibit my spiritual growth and that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is not a necessary prerequisite for the spiritual programs of the great religious traditions of our social history.

 

[1]Bhikkhu Sujato. Samyuttanikaya: Linked Discourses 22:102 (Kindle Locations 10696-10698).