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/

The Limits of Knowledge (4)

being-here and emptiness (ll)

How can existence in any form, even partial, be existentially empty? If our analysis of presenceas-process is correct in saying that the fundamen­tal dynamism of reality is change and becoming, and that change and becoming are in function of filling a need, then we find ourselves with an internal contradiction. Emptiness is nothing. As such it cannot be an explanation of the dynamism of presence.

If existence were simply static and at rest with itself, we would seem to have no problem. But since existence displays itself as an endless becoming fo­cused on being-here, “dragging” being-here into existence from moment to moment as if it were not here at all, we face a prob­lem whose solution seems beyond the reach of our concepts. For as we perceive it, existence acts as if it lacked the very thing that it is. Lack of “being” can only mean non-being, “nothing.” But, nothing, as we saw, is an absurd notion, because there is no such thing as “nothing.” Nothing does not exist and therefore cannot be known.

Existence, then, appears to be internally contradictory because by always moving to maintain itself it reveals an absence of self-possession. What is this absence? The circle of presence does not contain its explanation within itself. Where do we go from here? Beyond that circle, outside of being-here, human knowledge cannot function. For, outside of existence, there is no­thing.

Haven’t we gotten ourselves into this dead-end? After rejecting the validity of the traditional concept of “nothingness,” haven’t we simply resurrected it in another form, in a new guise, calling it emptiness? For what can emptiness “be” but another word for “no­thingness?”

“emptiness” is metaphor

The impasse stated in this form is only apparent, and it arises from taking emptiness to be a “factual” or literal concept referring to “something” which can only mean “nothing.” But emptiness is not nothingness because emptiness is not a concept, it is, as we’ve said all along, a metaphor. As metaphor, it does not answer, it rather preserves intact the significance of the question.

If we take emptiness as a literal concept and set “presence” and “emptiness” face-to-face, we discover that they cancel each other out; they cannot co-exist in the same mental construction. We cannot ask the question “how can presence be empty?” If “empty” is taken as a literal conventional concept, the question “how can presence be empty” is the same as asking “how can being be non-being.” That contradiction means that we have no way of understanding reality. And I believe it’s because we have confined our understanding of reality to what is mediated by conventional “literal” concepts and the so-called knowledge they produce. In the case we are considering that confinement is fatal. For “nothing” is a false concept, no matter what terms are used to describe it. It does not refer to anything at all.

Once we realize we are not using emptiness as a conventional concept, however, there is no inconsistency. Emptiness is a metaphor utilized to relate us to the living dynamism of reality — reality’s quest to remain itself. We have called it repeatedly, a self-embrace, and following Spino­za, conatus. Bergson called it the vital impulse, Schopenhauer called it will. In each case we are using an analogous human experience as a metaphor to describe this dynamism. We claimed we were justified in doing so because of the homogeneity of material reality. Everything is made of the same “stuff,” matter’s energy, including us. Emptiness does not refer to nothingness, but to a dynamism for self-posses­sion, a self-embrace, which, when mediated exclusively by conceptual knowledge, is unintelligible. But, ironically, while we do not know what it is, when we approach it through our metaphors we realize that we do indeed understand it — intimately, thoroughly, profoundly, implicitly — because we experience it as the inner living dynamism of our very selves. There is nothing in the world more familiar. It is our drive to survive. That is the basis for the validity of the me­ta­phor.

It was otherwise with the traditional use of the abstract concept “nothingness,” as we saw in chapter 1 and rejected. In that case there was an invalid attempt to generate a “proof” for the “necessity” of “being” based on the logical analysis of the opposition between the concepts of “being,” taken literally, and ”nothingness,” also taken literally. “Why,” the traditional metaphysicians asked, “is there something rather than nothing.” You can’t ask that question, for there is no such thing as nothing.  Neither of those concepts — “being” or “nothingness” — was considered to be anything but reliable representations of reality as it really is. It was precisely the impossible “reality” imputed to “nothingness,” however, that gave us the first clue to the untenability of the entire procedure. The essentialists had reified the concept of “non-being” and then tried to make real inferences about the character of “being” from it.

Emptiness as we use it metaphorically, however, refers to an entirely different notion. Rationally speaking, the metaphor concretizes the question as a conceptual quest; it doesn’t presume to provide a rational answer. We are proposing to understand the significance of an existential dy­namic whose internal contradictions we cannot reconcile in conventio­nal rationalist terms. The metaphor “emptiness,” inspired by our bodily human experience and praeter-conceptual understanding of the phenomenon, de­scribes in poetic terms what we do not conceptually comprehend but what we nevertheless experience and therefore understand intimately. This is a far cry from the claim to define the transcendent significance of “being” from a rational analysis of “non-being.” Our use of the meta­phor “emptiness” immediately directs us to a recognition of the non-intelligi­bility of the concepts involved and from there to an acknowledged conceptual ignorance, even as it describes existence as we experience it with uncommon accuracy. Unlike the function of the concept “nothingness,” which supposedly leads us to “know,” emptiness (the metaphor) leads us to “not-know,” or should we say to “un-know.” Emptiness serves to put a human face on the baffling interior living dynamism of all reality which we ex­perience intimately as the very core of what we are. We understand it more clearly, more distinctly and more thoroughly than anything else in the world. And from there we understand all existence even though we do not know what it is

We realize that existence is empty for us because even though we have it, we still thirst for it — we know what that’s like; we wake up with it every day. But clearly it cannot be “known” in conventional conceptual terms, and therefore it cannot be controlled. We understand it, not because we conceptualize it or can identify its cause but because we expe­rience it. We realize how accurately it defines us. It is a clear conscious embrace, a cognitively transparent experience but not a rational conceptual comprehension. We understand it; but we do not know what it is.

out of the impasse?

Rather than generate hypotheses to fill the conceptual gap, I am perfectly content that the final statement to be made on this question is that we can go no further — conceptually. We have encountered what Lonergan might have called a matter of sheer unintelligible fact.[3] The traditional “solutions” to the encounter with this philosophic dead-end, advanced in the West, in my opinion, have taken one of two paths. In the first, science-orien­tated reductionists ignore the problem by simply taking the existential dynamism for granted. They assume the unexplained existence of the embrace of existence and its manifestations in the survival drive and confine their analyses to what has subsequently evolved from it. They do not ask, as we do, what it is.

In the second, philosophers of the perennial essentialist tradition simply dismiss scientific questions as “not ultimate.” They have no respect for mere presence, or “matters of fact.”[4] They claim the real question exists only at the level of abstract “being” (and “non-being”) and proceed to a “solution” by crediting our concepts and therefore the human mental apparatus with something they do not possess — a separate genus of being called “spirit.” These “solutionists” (like Rahner and Lonergan) erect our very demands for knowledge into “proofs.” Thus they continue the fundamental circularities that have characterized Western thought from the beginning. I believe we have no justification for saying that the demand of our minds for an explanation is itself an explanation. To my mind, this is to revisit the Platonic error and the Anselm­ian trap. We imagine reality based on the functions and products of our minds. To present human conceptual knowing (verbalized abstraction) in such a way that its description requires the implied existence of an unknown (and admittedly unknowable) object, is a huge projection.

Rahner says Thomas Aquinas agrees that human knowledge is locked into the limitations of sense experience. “Transcendence” by scholastic definition goes beyond those limits. So everyone agrees, including Thomas: transcendence cannot be known directly. Rahner’s Thomas, however, is made to go further and say that the projections of human consciousness, (i.e., the ability to abstract), imply an absolute principle “pre-appre­hen­ded” by the mind, that never becomes itself the direct object of knowledge but opens us to another “realm” of knowledge. This is not a problem for Rahner because he believes “supernatural revelation” begins where direct knowing ends. The “absence of the implied object,” in his system, plays a vital role in the transition to other “facts” in the form of revealed beliefs.[5]

My analysis is different. At the end of my reflections the discovery of the emptiness at the heart of being-here puts me at a dead-end. I believe this is true of Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Bergson as well. I am aware that the apparent contradiction we encounter in the way matter’s energy is-here leaves us at the edge of a void. We have reached the end of our earth-bound knowing. From a conceptual point of view, the rest is darkness. At that point Schopenhauer and Bergson each limit themselves to a description of that darkness — as “Will” or as “Vital impulse” — it’s where the buck stops. Rahner, for his part, turns to revelation. What I claim, is that the only thing left … if one has the temerity to go further … is relationship.

relationship to the darkness

In some way, then, that is not clear, we suspect that if there is an “explanation,” it lies in that darkness into which we peer but cannot see — what we feel and touch as our very selves, what we understand so intimately and see so clearly and certainly but about which we can say nothing. We have little choice but to accept this situation because, however galling it might be, we ourselves awaken into a condition of absolute immersion in that darkness. We understand it with absolute clarity; we know of its creative power with absolute certainty; and we rely on it for our very ex­istence itself. Matter’s energy, the embrace of existence, is a matter of sheer unexplained empirical fact. It is as incomprehensible as it is absolutely familiar, undeniable and self-evident. It is the very fire and light of our lives, but utter darkness to our minds. It is us … and yes indeed, we understand it.

What do I mean? If an immersion-relationship to being-here is the defining feature of our organisms, ourselves, we fail to embrace the reliability of existence with its endemic thirst and emptiness at the risk of denying our very selves and the conditions under which we and our ancestors have been here and have evolved to become what we are. We cannot do that. We cannot sit in judgment on the circle of existence, matter’s energy, as if we stood outside of it; for not only our faculty of analysis and judgment but our very existence itself is an evolved function of matter’s energy. The internal incomprehensibility of being-here is now seen to have invaded our persons. The emptiness, the hunger to live, which we encountered in the dynamism of existence, material energy’s self-em­brace, we now see resides at the core of our very selves and lights the fire of our conscious presence; for we are-here without escape (not even death can annihilate the material energy that we are) and our very consciousness is a tool of our inherited determination to survive. We accept it. To fail to do so implies personal self-negation.

But notice: upon realizing that our analysis of existence could not explain itself, we did not physically annihilate nor disappear. Of course not. The contradictions we encountered in our rational ruminations had no impact whatsoever on being-here. Existence clearly is not dependent on our conceptualizations; the significance of being-here and the selectivity of rational consciousness do not move in the same plane. There is a reason why we cannot make deductions about reality from our ideas alone … it’s because our understanding of reality is not a function of ideas. Our consciousness is grounded in somatic experience, the organic immersion in matter’s energy. It also supports our conclusion that the neo-Thomists’ “transcendent thrust of consciousness” tells us nothing. Conceptualization with the logic of its required “explanations,” in other words, does not correspond to the reality we have come to realize is process — energy, a living dynamism we’ve described as a congenital self-embrace. And what we’re interested in is what reality is, not how we conceptualize it.

 

[1] Cf Creative Evolution, 1907 passim
 [2] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, Everyman London, 1995 tr Berman.
 [3] For an extensive discussion of Lonergan’s “unintelligible fact,” see appendix 2.
[4] Cf. Rahner, Spirit in the World., pp.162 and 175. And Lonergan, Insight, p.652.
[5] For a more complete treatment of this position see the appendix.

The Limits of Knowledge (2)

the human being — time and death

Existence is time.[1] It’s not coincidental that time caused us to look at being-here separately from abstract “being” and ask what it otherwise would not have occurred to us to ask, why do I die, or “Why does being-here seem to end?”

My life is both temporal and temporary.  There’s a connection between the two.  It seems the very nature of the modulations of existence is to find better ways to be-here, to survive and extend survival.  The vitality displayed by matter’s energy is not a leisured aesthetic creativity, an unhurried pastime.  There is an urgency here that derives from a conatus, a drive to survive, that is integral to a developing universal entropy that results from the energy expenditure of any “thing,” whether it be the hydrogen fusing into helium in stars or the respiratory activity of the cells of the human brain.  Entropy is the exhaust from combustion — the smoke that is the sign of fire — the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to move toward a state of uniform inertia through the expenditure of energy for the performance of work.  Work is energy applied in the endeavor to survive. The aggregation and integration forged by matter’s energy is part and parcel of the “downhill” flow of the existential cataract initiated at the big-bang that drives the Universe to produce its effects — like the eddies and vortices that spin off in a raging current.  These pyramidal vortices (one vortex cumulatively building on another and another) are an anti-en­tro­pic phenomenon — they struggle against dissolution, to survive — even though they add to universal entropy as a result.

My life is the inner force of existence because it is matter’s energy.  It is driven in the direction of perdurance in an obsession to continue the dance of presence.  Time is the effluence of my own presence.  As my existence perdures from moment to moment — as each “now” molts into the next — it emanates time as the sweat of its creative labors; the vapor trail of its endless explorations.  I embrace my being-here, and so I embrace time.

The transcendence over death, not only through evolutionary integration but also with other communitarian strategies like daily alimentation and organismic reproduction, harnesses even as it recapitulates the patterns and primordial energies let loose within the first second of the big bang.  The energy that drives my hunger for existence, is the energy of matter itself.

We live in a banquet of existence.  We are not self-sufficient.  We are dependent on the entire material matrix within which we evolved.  In our lifetime, each human organism consumes in sustenance probably 40 or 50 tons of the matter’s energy — in the form of carbon — of other living things who must die in order that we might live.  Add to that another 50 tons of oxygen continuously drawn in from the atmosphere and utilized together with carbon in the cellular combustion we call metabolism.  At death we return our “stuff” to be used as food by others as part of an endless cycle of interchange within the one organism produced and energized by the cascade of existence.  Matter’s energy is a totality.

At a certain magical moment, also, the very cells of my body, by utilizing another communitarian tactic, combine with another’s to create a new identity — my daughter, my son — which is automatically granted a full allotment of time, slipping under the entropic radar of death.  How was this miracle accomplished?  The living cells are mine, but their age and accumulated karma are erased.  Death is cheated, fooled, outwitted.  The new individual with my cells, my DNA, eludes the death they were otherwise destined to endure.  Do we share this adventure in survival with love and gratitude? … Only if we understand!

But if we mis-under­stand — if we originally mis-interpreted that moment of crisis, the perception of death, as the cessation of what’s really there, we are quite capable of turning this banquet of sharing into a selfish grab-bag where the desperate “eat drink and make merry” in a display of bitter disillusionment against a morrow of imagined nothingness.  It is precisely the fact that “I” am metaphysically insignificant except as an integra­ted function of matter’s energy that opens me to a new dimension.   I realize that what is really there and really important is the matrix, the universal “stuff” of which I am made, the homogeneous substrate of which all things are made, the single organism of which we are all the leaves and branches, and which will go on in other forms endlessly.  It was with those micro-threads of existence that I was woven.  The primacy here, as always, belongs to the stuff of existence, the matter-energy of the universe.  It is material energy “congealed” in me.  And in short order, the same existence will use “me” to do something else in a constant search for survival — existence.

So time is the expression of process; it is the measure of groping and the tracks of creativity.  It marks the work in progress of evolutionary development.

endless or “eternal”

The re-cycling is endless.  Isn’t that the same as “eternal,” and doesn’t it imply transcendent, necessary, absolute etc., all those abstract, essentialist characteristics derived from the “concept of being” that we rejected in chapter 1?

No.  Endless is not “eternal” because endless is open and empty.  “Eternal” is closed, fixed and finished, full and complete; “eternal” is the absence of time.  Endless, on the other hand, is time … time without end; it contemplates development without term, a presence that is forever thirsty.  “Eternal,” is synonymous with unchanging, impassible and immutable, Pure Act, pure stasis, without a shred of unfulfilled potential — perfect.  It’s a completely foreign concept to us, pure conceptual projection.  We’ve never experienced anything the least bit like it.  For us, being-here as we know it is an endless phenomenon that throbs always with unrealized potential, with an ever perceived emptiness seeking to be filled and asking for nothing but more time.  We have never encountered existence in any other form.  Its current modality is always in the process of becoming, apparently without limit, itself — existence.

Being-here in our world, is endless becoming.  It’s all we know.  Where, then, do we get the notion of a fixed and finished “eternal”?  I believe it’s another of our fantasies based on the requirements of the imaginary ancient “concept of being.”  Existence, matter’s energy, as found in the real world, however, is a function of power — potentia as Spinoza discerned insightfully — potential; it is focused on survival and constantly ready to change tactics in order to achieve it.  Matter’s creative power is the drive to exist (survive) by extruding new forms out of itself creating time.

“Eternal” is unthinkable.  Endless is not.  We can understand endless perfectly because it’s no different from time itself.  To conceptualize “endless” requires no more insight than imagining present moments, “nows” in an open-ended flow into the future.  In our very own awareness of ourselves-exist­ing, which is the unfolding of our personal presence in time, we actually experience this pheno­menon most intimately as our own sentient selves.  We experience ourselves in a temporal flow into a potentially endless future.  To experience temporal flow is to experience that part of “endless” which will always be here — the present moment, “now,” the only part of “endless” that ever … and always, exists.  To experience one’s own presence in the here and now is to experience, in a sense, everything, because it is to experience all that reality is, or ever was, or can ever be.

We are reminded that for the 14th century mystic Johannes Eckhart, “now” was the most sacred of all locations, the center of the universe.  It was precisely where “God,” he said, who exists in an Eternal “Now,” was actively sharing “being” with creation in an effluence of love and self-donation.  If you want to touch “God,” he said, you can only do it “now.” The fact that “now” — the present moment — is the only moment that really exists and that, at the same time, it goes almost universally unattended, may be a measure of exactly how alienated from existence we are.

Can we say that our conception corresponds to the emphasis on living in the present moment promoted by the Buddhist, Thich Nat Hanh?  The Bud­dhists insist their counsel is a discipline not a doctrine.  They don’t speak about metaphysics, “being” or existence, so we can’t say for sure.  But for the Buddhists, as for Meister Eckhart, the present moment is all there is.  We are-here only in the present moment.  To live in the present moment is to embrace the impermanence, the “emptiness” that drives reality always to the next moment, creating time.

[1] The similarity of this proposition to Heidegger’s thesis expounded in his Being and Time is only semantic. For H. time is the pulse and measure of Da-sein’s anguish of being-toward-death, which alone brings Da-sein’s authentic care to bear on the beings-in-the-world. In my conception, on the other hand, I make every effort to exclude the subjective factors. Time for me is foundationally a physical property exuded by the physical perdurance in existence of a physical entity — matter’s energy.

Eschaton

Interest in what Jesus was like and exactly what he said has grown in tandem with the awareness that Christian doctrine as we have it was not what he had in mind.  As scholars pursue their quest for the historical Jesus one of the principal currents that they have identified was his belief in the imminent end of time.  It was a focus prominent in the rest of the New Testament as well, and it differs markedly from ours.  For them the end and its judgment responded to political oppression and established a community of justice on earth; for us it is individual reward or punishment in another world.

It has been conjectured that Jesus’ belief reflected the influence of a contemporary separatist sect of Jews known as Essenes who, had withdrawn from society and set up a community in the desert around the Dead Sea east of Palestine.  The central belief of the Essenes was that there would be a final war, led by the messiah, that would definitively establish the dominion of Israel’s “God” and end forever the oppressive control of pagan conquerors who worshipped a multitude of false and unholy gods.  The Roman occupation was the obvious reference.  Some believe it was in anticipation of that impending “war” that preachers like John the baptizer, and Jesus who followed him, issued their call for repentance.  The Jewish War of liberation against the Romans in 70 c.e., less than a generation after Jesus’ death, seems to have been a  consequence of that belief.

Clear as that current is, the Christian communities responsible for producing the gospels remember Jesus’ preaching having a different center.  However indisputable it is that Jesus shared the belief that the end was not far off, and that it was the reason for his sense of mission, the gospel authors said he did not offer it as the incentive for his program.  His call was to love one another in imitation of a loving, forgiving “God.”  Even when Jesus made reference to judgment, it was always secondary to the main message: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was homeless and you took me in … I was in prison and you visited me … blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.”  The surprise of his listeners confirms that they did not think of those things as “commandments” for which they would be judged.

During the early years of Christian expansion into the Greek-speaking world it seems the eschaton — the end — was expected shortly.  In preparation for that event some new converts, like those in Thessalonica, stopped working altogether and just waited; Paul reproved them for it: “if you won’t work, don’t expect to eat.”  One didn’t become a Christian just to get something.

When it became clear that Jesus was not coming any time soon, one of the principal motivations for joining the Christian community disappeared.  Desire to be on the “right side” at the end must have been central to the Christian appeal because it was immediately replaced by an emphasis on personal immortality and the individual’s judgment at death.  This shift, while it served to maintain intensity, represented the transfer of the “kingdom of God” from the political sphere to the solitary person and the “end of the world” to individual death.  This had the effect of changing the focus of the Christian program from building a community of justice and mutual love in imitation of our forgiving “father,” to an individual blamelessness pursued out of fear of punishment.

Restoration

The change did not go unnoticed and seems to have created a reaction.  I believe it was reflected in the writings of Origen of Alexandria who worked in the early 200’s.  It took the form of his theory of apokatastasis.  The term means “restoration” in Greek and had been used by the Stoic philosophers to refer to the return of all things to their original state, a moment in the eternal cycle of the rebirth of the universe.  Following Peter’s use of the word in Acts 3, Origen applied it to the Christian eschaton and for him it meant universal salvation, i.e., that no one, not even evil spirits, would remain eternally unreconciled.  There may be a “hell” but it was for the purposes of correction and it was temporary.  In the end all would return to the Source from which they came.  In this scenario without an eternal hell, being “blameless” lost its urgency.

Origen’s teaching continued on in the east for centuries.  Gregory of Nyssa was a vocal proponent of it, and even went further and claimed that both hell and heaven were not places but states of mind that result from the choices we make in the way we live.  It is significant that all official condemnations of apokatastasis came in Councils held after Constantine had given the Catholic hierarchy the theocratic responsibility of guaranteeing behavioral compliance in the Empire.  Apparently the bishops felt that fear of eternal punishment was a necessary tool for achieving that purpose.  Many still see that role and that tool as essential to the definition of the Church.

Origen’s doctrine preserves the spirit of Jesus’ message: the all-forgiving mercy of “God” and the communal nature of the coming kingdom.  Anything else should have been recognized as essentially antithetical to tradition.  The quid pro quo obedience-or-punishment that accompanied the new focus on the immortal individual soul and the “other world” was a sea-change in moral perspective.  It was the reversal of Paul’s entire thesis, clearly delineated in Romans and Galatians: that Christian life was not a matter of obeying “law;” there was no more law.  It was the free loving response of man to the free forgiving love of “God.”

When Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther debated the issue of free will in their exchange of essays in 1524-25, Luther accused Erasmus of Pelagianism precisely because Erasmus saw salvation as a product of human cooperation with “God’s” grace.  Erasmus had got the Catholic position right: Augustine’s more radical theory of grace and human impotence had never been fully embraced; the Catholic Church had always insisted that the individual was free to sin or not to sin.  Luther, following Augustine, rejected that.  But in order to make the case for the exclusive operation of “God” in salvation while simultaneously maintaining the threat of eternal punishment, Luther had to reassert Augustine’s claim of moral impotence, effectively denying free will.  He had to make all of universal history the inexorable unfolding of a divine plan — the saved were “elected” and the others were allowed to slide into perdition.  Humans were incapable of not sinning, and “God” had no obligation to save them from the damnation that inevitably ensued; if he forgave the elect, it was pure gratuity; it had nothing to do with human merit.  Luther’s call for those with faith to trust in the forgiveness of “God” was welcomed in practice for it took the burden of responsibility for “earning” salvation off the individual believer, but it did not change the source of moral energy: it was still “salvation” — the fear of hell and the desire for virtually any alternative.

Love, metaphysically

If we were to “theologize” Jesus’ message of love — and by “theologize” I mean think of it as a metaphysical reality not just a moral injunction — then, theologizing is what John was doing when he said “God is love.” “To love,” then, is to be like “God,” it is theosis, “divinization.”

John’s theology could have prevailed.  But it did not.  What prevailed was an image of “God” as judge and executioner that corresponded to the definition of the eschaton as individual judgment — reward or punishment — exactly what was required for the effective running of an empire.

But if John’s theology had prevailed, then all the words that have been traditionally used to refer to the ultimate Christian achievement — redemption, salvation, eternal happiness — would apply to love.  To learn to love would be “ultimate;” it would be to achieve all there is to achieve as a human being.  That means there is nowhere further to go; there is nothing more to get.  From this angle both Erasmus and Luther (and Augustine) are shown to be dead wrong.  “Salvation” as reward whether gained through one’s own efforts (Erasmus) or as a free gift of “God” (Luther), ran counter to the teaching of Jesus.  For to love is precisely not “to gain” or “to get” anything.  Love “seeks not its own.”  That is the ultimate human achievement.  Religion for Jesus was the pursuit of a new way of being human.  It’s what you give freely not what you get for your obedience.

The inverse would be true as well: to fail to love is to suffer an ultimate failure.  To put it in terms of this present discussion of the eschaton, it might also be said that to continue to think that the ultimate human fulfillment is something you get after your human life is done, is hell. It means you never understood life: who you are and what “God” is.  “God” is what “he” does, and you are what you do.  Jesus’ message is that in each case it is love.

All “ultimates” get translated into metaphors; the more ultimate the more eschatological the metaphor: judgment, reward, punishment, heaven, hell, etc., correspond to the ultimate values of western Christian culture.  For that is the way we humans deal with intangibles: we “personify” or “reify” them.  It’s a spontaneous human function that we even see at work in childhood.  We translate imponderables and uncertainties into imagery we can handle.  Children create rules for their games without being taught; all games have to have rules — structure — or they evaporate into chaos.  Life is intrinsically imponderable and uncertain, we have to impose structure and that structure is our culture from which our societies emerge.  Each culture runs by its own set of rules.

There is no problem with these structures unless we forget that they are our impositions and we begin to take them as reality … that we have a right to impose on other people.  In the case of the privatization of the Christian eschaton, learning to “seek not your own” — the point of Jesus’ message — got inverted into a selfish acquisitory attitude toward life that had repercussions in all areas, like the kind of social system that western Christians created.  A market-dominated society runs on rules that eliminate community survival and define value as the individual’s power to acquire and accumulate.  Penury entails isolation and death.  It’s the game of life as we have structured it.  It mirrors the Christian imagery of the personalized eschaton — a reward earned by an individual’s hard work and compliance with the commandments.  The “particular judgment” means there is no communal salvation available, and “eternal” punishment means isolation from LIFE.  There is no forgiveness for failure.

We are reminded again and again: in the West our religious impasse has been created by taking our metaphors as facts instead of poetry.  We have to learn to understand that our religion is an ancient ancestral guide, stitched together from the experience of untold generations of people, about how to live — what to do — and what poetry may help us in doing it.  Religion is a structure we impose on life.  It must be re-evaluated and reactivated in every generation.

The study of the historical Jesus has revealed attitudes embedded in his message that we in our times find remarkably appealing.  The fact that in this regard Jesus seems to have more in common with us than with the centuries and centuries of western Christian doctrine is a result of the spirit of our times and the “rules of the game” that we apply.  Jesus’ rules resonate with ours … they are moral rules, not metaphysical or scientific rules, and they are communitarian.

What comes after death, if anything, is a matter for physics to discover, not religion.  Do we have immortal souls?  That’s a factual question.  We either do or we don’t; it doesn’t matter how much we “believe,” our faith does not make it so if it is not … and vice versa.  Religion should have nothing to say about it and in fact shouldn’t really care, because its moral commitments — its counsels about what to do — are applicable no matter what the physical reality.  Once we realize that Jesus’ message is a moral invitation to imitate the benevolence of “God” our father, and not a hidden cosmology or game of thrones … and that the ultimates implied in this moral message may be given poetic ultimacy in imaginative metaphors about the end of time and judgment for life after death, we can separate the one from the other.  The need for humans to love is a moral imperative that remains true whether we live forever or not.  The Christian images of the eschaton, on the other hand, are not facts, but they may be taken as metaphors that evoke the ultimate nature of the human need to love.

To learn to love is not optional … our very destiny as human beings, individually and socially, depends on it.  Learning to love is not the means to get something else — something we really want.  To love is an end in itself.  If we are really going to learn to love, we have to learn that there is, ultimately, nothing else worth wanting.

And, despite all indications to the contrary, if life as we know it should happen to continue after death, it will not change that formula one iota.  Life after death will offer nothing but the opportunity to go on doing what we do here: loving one another.