Freedom of Mind

“The crucial premise of radical, original liberalism is that we often do not know ourselves very well at all, and that the ideas that constitute our desires are often unworthy even of ourselves. We do however have a power of understanding that will seek reasons and evidence just as surely as rocks fall and planets rotate, and to the extent that we make way for this power we realize ourselves. ”
Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic

 

Our time is perhaps best characterized by a growing lack of faith in our liberal institutions. Everywhere the calm, evidence based voice of reason as the proper means of guiding our societies is giving way to arbitrary shows of force and power. On one side there is the growing set of true believes in religious fundamentalism ranging from ISIS to evangelicals, all of which are sure they are interpreting the “signs of the times” correctly due to some supernatural revelation or another. On the other side the growing set of true believers in economic fundamentalism continue to insist to the rest of the world that the ‘American lifestyle is non-negotiable’, as Ronald Reagan once stated. These people insist that the needs of globalized capital must come before the needs of nations, peoples or the earth itself due to fundamentalist faith in some neoliberal economic theory or another.

Liberalism wants to protect the freedom of the mind to pursue reasoning. This involves critical questioning of anything and everything as needed to follow the trail of evidence in the pursuit of what is real and true. This is in stark contrast to the positions and premises of the true believers who replace reason with a sacred authority above reason and wall off areas of discourse from criticism, insisting instead on faith and unquestioning obedience.

Why has the trust in liberal institutions waned?

By the common view reason is on one side of the human experience and the passions on the other. Reason should be able to whip those passions into shape and order them to pursue rational, if rather soulless, aims and goals. The problem, in this view, is that reason is a rather weak taskmaster which is easily overcome in the face of temptation or co-opted to provide little more than rationalizations. By this view our minds and moral life are all easily understood, in fact, they are what we know best. For the self in the center of the head running the show, mind and morality are transparent and the only problem we have is a lack of will power for doing good, one that is capable of stoically resisting any and all temptations.

Basically this is a picture of a world of milk-toast virtue. Billy Joel once captured the common understanding really well when he sang;
“I’d rather laugh with the sinners
Than cry with the saints,
The sinners are much more fun.”

This picture of mankind as embodying a fundamental split between reason and passion is just the same old dualism of mind and body bequeathed to us from our Christian inheritance presented now in a psychological guise. As we saw when we reviewed the work of Damasio, Pinker and neuroscience generally, there is no such fundamental distinction between reasoning and emotions. What we find instead is that passions can be set one against the other. Some passions are much more likely to lead us to real happiness than others and we have the capacity to understand this for ourselves. As our understanding grows we become more skilled at choosing which passions we will give priority to and which ones we will learn to be wary of.

This is why we are not all heroin addicts. We recognize happiness involves more than just an absence of pain. The benefit involved in such means is far outweighed by the costs in ruined relationships, self-esteem and the future health of the body. At the end of the day the heroin addict shows us that the pursuit of happiness in that fashion leads to a lack of liberty; the un-freedom of addiction.

Freedom of the mind is the ability to pursue its understanding, to not believe in arbitrary ideas. What about freedom of the body?

Freedom is not the ability to have your every arbitrary desire immediately fulfilled, even though this is the common conception of freedom held up as consumerism’s ideal. Isn’t this what the charmed circle of the really rich supposedly enjoy which separates them from all the rest of us? We assume that since they can travel to any country at the drop of a hat, buy anything (and anyone) they desire, and generally live the life of the gods, that they are the happiest beings on earth. Yet when we look closer we see that such a life would be defined less by the actions such individuals actively choose and more by their passive reactions to each and every whim that comes to them from their bodies or the messages of their culture.

As a bit of a caricature here’s a quick word sketch of such lives, these pinnacles of globalized capital. The brands of clothes they wear are as determined as which brand of yacht they will purchase. Where they will be seen on said yacht at any given time of year is already determined by the habits of the jet-setting beautiful people, “one simply must be in Monte Carlo for the spring dear…” Schools attended and subjects studied are fixed, often from kindergarten, regardless of individual inclination or talent. That little guy in the center of our heads knows exactly what he or she wants and goes directly for it. The super rich just have fewer obstacles to contend with in their pursuit of happiness.

Against all this there is the idea of freedom as it was understood by the men who penned famously that each of us equally share the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By this view we do not know our minds very well, not very well at all. Often what turns out to have been best for us are not events we would have chose. Often we are not at all sure what we should be pursuing, particularly as times of crisis visit our lives. Our minds are driven by hopes and fears around all those aspects of life each of us inevitably encounter yet cannot control. In attempting to control that which is larger than ourselves we are prone to superstitions.

The nihilism haunting our scientific view sees the universe as an unthinking machine and our feelings as nothing more than a meaningless side effect of cold calculations of classical and quantum mechanics. Those who subscribe to this belief hope that by learning how the machine works we can make the universe deliver Bon Bons more often than cancer and plague.

The eternalist rejects the arbitrariness by which cause and effect play out with seemingly no regard for our sense of morality and fairness and insists there must be someone behind it all. The nihilist concluded that there is some ‘thing’ at the root of existence – an unfeeling machine fooling us with suffering. In contrast the eternalist insists feelings reflect something real and important baked into the very structure of the cosmos but then is stuck with explaining why the cosmos seems to give so little consideration to them. Postulating not a ‘something’ but a ‘someone’ opens an avenue to controlling the uncontrollable. Life and death might fail to answer to our desires but surely, this thinking goes, they answer to their creator. By groveling and sacrifice, piety and propitiation such supernatural power(s) can be made to deliver Bon Bons more often than it delivers cancer and plagues.

The Middle Way between the nihilist and the eternalist insists we are organic sentient beings capable of pursuing rational self-determination. In this view the universe is not a cold calculation machine demonically providing a simulacrum of feelings in sentient beings nor is sentient beings’ destiny to be little more than puppets in a supernatural morality play. They asked the Buddha, what are you? To which he replied, I am human. But, they insisted again thinking of gods and prophets, what are you? I am awake, he replied.

It is in our rational self interest to pursue the most enlightened society we are capable of. This in turn depends on the degree of wisdom we are able to bring to bear as we reflect on the lessons of yesterday, the practical potentials of today and the most probable events of tomorrow. How the liberal institutions we have come to take for granted, even as we lose faith in them, were designed to support this work is what we will be taking up next week.

Equally Pursing Happiness

“I am humbled before the earth
I am humbled before the sky
I am humbled before the dawn
I am humbled before the evening twilight
I am humbled before the blue sky
I am humbled before the darkness
I am humbled before the sun
I am humbled before that standing within me which speaks with me
Some of these things are always looking at me
I am never out of sight
Therefore I must tell the truth
That is why I always tell the truth
I hold my word tight to my breast”

Tom Torlino, Navajo, c. 1890, quoted in Peter Gold’s Navajo & Tibetan Sacred Wisdom

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
United States Declaration of Independence

 

What does every mother hope for their child? That they will be happy. What does every father hope for their child? That they will be happy. What does every living thing want for its own life? That they will be happy: that their lives will be meaningful, that they be able to enjoy food, safety and shelter. One could say this basic observation about the goal that keeps motivating life is self-evident. It is true life is also a fight for survival in an arena of natural selection but the life itself, the great bulk of time not directly involving birth, sex and death, this life itself is full of the pursuit of happiness.

The same aspiration seems to run through most, if not all, the animal kingdom as well to various degrees. Mess with a bear cub and momma bear will set you straight right away in a clear and simple, yet profound, display of loving protection. I cannot believe the robin caring for her chicks, or the rabbit family eyeing my garden are not sharing in the same basic experience of care and concern we people know so well. There seem to be differences of degree, not differences in kind between us and much the rest of the living fabric of the ecosphere.

This makes us fundamentally equal with all living things. The infinite expanse of space casts forth its web of cause and effect, churning in a vastness inconceivable. It is churning in just such a way that a complex congregation of molecules takes place on our planet as an almost immortal pulse of life, full of awareness in every direction but clothed exclusively in mortality. The countless sentient beings are like an eye blinking open, tasting a very specific set of experiences and then shutting quietly to rest as bones among the bones of innumerable individuals spanning countless species and time immemorial.

I’m not sure there has ever been a being born from a source that wished it ill; as if the deepest wish of an egg laying Sea Turtle or a laboring Alpaca was ‘oh I hope you have a life full of pain and difficulty, hardships and great suffering.’ That just is not the case. Given that life itself includes this deep aspiration, that those born might be accompanied by happiness, we should ask ourselves some pointed questions.

Have we been working to create an environment in which it is easy to live well and be good or are we populating our environment with every type of allure and temptation towards our lower nature we can think of?

How is that working out, can you be happy just being alone with yourself, basically can you rest joyfully? Content? Or does your mind run on a treadmill of concerns and worry punctuated by moments of spacing out and long spans of rewriting the past and guessing the future? A parent’s aspiration for the happiness of their child is perhaps the most defining characteristic of our species. How is it that this radically fundamental characteristic of the human experience, this break-you-open-it’s-so-wholehearted wish for another’s happiness, how is it that it is nowhere to be found in our society at large? It is so taken for granted it is barely mentioned, yet isn’t it rather obvious, both from our own experience and looking around, that it is not easy to lead a happy life, that we could use a bit more skill in this department?

We don’t talk about it because it doesn’t jive with our images of ourselves as Faustian world conquers slaying all our competition in the ‘marketplace’ – the place we spend the most of our human time and energy. We don’t talk about it in our movies, books or theater; it is not discussed in government or classrooms; it is not highlighted from the pulpit. Compassion, kindness, cooperation; these things embarrass us to talk about, as though that which is soft and gentle and promoting peace could not also be strong.

I’m going to tell you the secret about human life. It is easy to kill. It is hard to provide succor to the grieving survivors. Cheap foolishness can destroy, only patient wisdom can build up.

I think most people will find it an interesting exercise to try and set aside all your preoccupations and see yourself with eyes that only want what is really best for you. Normally our minds seem host to a set of hyper-critical eyes always noticing our flaws and shortcomings. It is as if we had internalized the sociological mores as an ongoing justification dialog between ourselves and our accusers. We spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to our ‘selves’ (and often anyone else who will listen) just how right we were or are to have done or be doing whatever it is, and how cursed the whole damn universe is because it is unfairly unfair to us. Those eyes seem to frighten us half out of our wits and keep us from ever really deeply relaxing. We may sing, “Don’t worry, be happy” but rarely can we take our own advice.

Against all those who would dictate how you should walk, talk and dress; what you should feel, believe and say; against all these internalized law givers, all you have is the strength by which you are able to walk your own path as an individual. The first step on this path takes place when you see the deep equality shared by all living things. Those with the critical eyes and ready formulae for how you should live your life are bluffing. Though often with the best of intentions our friends, teachers, preachers, philosophers, and theologians endlessly full of advice, at the end of the day know no more about the great mystery of being than what your own heart teaches you. The final truth comes from the inside. Hospital workers often understand this directly as they are not as removed from the real living and dying going on all around us every day.

The mother’s eyes that wanted only what would be best for you are willing to forgive your missteps along the way as little more than learning episodes. Those eyes want to see you enjoy a long, healthy, meaningful, love-filled life. We become adults when we are able to look after ourselves. We will do that well to the degree we learn to look on ourselves in the same loving way. If this is your most fundamental relationship with your life experience, that experience will be one of deep contentment at the blessed opportunity to have even a few moments in this sacred world. This is in sharp contrast to the hyper-critical eyes which insist on driving you to try to get and be ever more and more and more.

Looking on our own lives this way is a very immediate and potent invocation of the nurturing emotional system we looked at earlier. What if you could learn to look on yourself with those eyes? It is hard to even imagine, let alone fully feel. Which is sad because there is healing in the glance, the kind of healing that could have cooled the troubled hearts of our rampage killers.

For some this is an example of using such eyes of compassion as a meditation that sends care to others. : Tara.

We are basically a gentle species; witness the care with which we make love. Lovers know a sweetness in giving freely with consent a rapist will never, ever know. This too is common knowledge, self-evident really, though this too has mostly gone missing from our culture thoroughly pornified by those who would sell us stuff. The eye most of us have watching us is not the enthusiastic, warm eyes of young love or the accepting eyes of our mothers but it is this one, the eye of money. It is the hexing eye of the Jones, full of status and hierarchy.

Dollarnote_siegel_hqI would like to remind us that we are actually under the gaze of our ancestors. We inherit from them the lifestyle and institutions by which we organize our life support systems. Both are flawed and are in need of reform. This is the task that falls to our times.

We are just like our ancestors, carrying on the same legacy. Now it is our turn to know and feel the bonds of gentle love and the brokenness of jagged grief. Like them, we too will know terrors and fears of very real possibilities that threaten to disrupt the delicate interdependence we have come to rely on. Like them we will need to draw on reserves of courage and determination to protect what is precious.

tv_barsThis is the eye that dazzles us with status, bewitches us with shame, distracts us from the conversations we could be having about the world outside the box. It is a world messy with poverty and weaponry, with corruption running from the deepest hells of shadow banking up through the commanding heights of the glittering board rooms running our oil based economy. We would be fools to think all the institutions built up through the previous generation’s education in the school of hard knocks should be replaced wholesale but it would be equally foolish to think they are still serving our needs and not in need of radical reform.

With every passing day we are burning up the planet just that much more. We already have exceeded our planetary carrying capacity, with every passing day another tick of growth just increases that excess that much further. This path will not allow us to enjoy a long, healthy, meaningful, love-filled life. It is time to wake up. It is time to open our eyes.

Self Evident

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
United States Declaration of Independence

 

What does it mean for a truth to be self evident? Perhaps the better question is actually what does it mean that a truth can be self evident?  It is simple really; “we have no choice but to believe what we understand” Matthew Stewart explains in Nature’s God. Put this way it hardly seems such an obnoxious idea, almost a truism. But this is not the case. This is another concept from the radical philosophy held by our Deist founding fathers. It has to do with the nature of the mind.

Rene Descartes proposed an absolute skepticism as the foundation of modern western philosophy. He asked what if a demon had created this entire universe to deceive us. In that case we could trust nothing reported by the senses. How would we ever know what was real and what was a delusion? He (in)famously concluded the only certainty available to a human being is the conceptual mind; “I think, therefore I am.”

Notice the assumption here about the nature of the self or what we would call today a theory of the mind. The philosophical question he is struggling to answer is what is real about our experience. He brings to the investigation the Christian assumptions of an individual soul which is somehow situated above the manifest universe; it can judge whether the whole of our embodied experience it is true or otherwise. Though it may not be obvious, in his thought experiment he sits in judgment over the whole of existence by assuming that human consciousness is the only really alive personhood in an otherwise dead material universe. Remember Descartes also bequeathed our belief that animals are no more than clever machines.

Daniel Dennett was among the first to provide a thoroughly modern critique of a theory of mind he aptly described as a Cartesian Theater. Though the title does not well represent the actual contents, Dennett’s Consciousness Explained is a very important read for those interested in consciousness as it is being thought about in academic settings under the influence of the neurosciences of our times. The Cartesian Theater is a descriptive term for this theory of mind commonly attributed to Descartes. In Descartes’ view the mind is somewhat like a multi-screen movies theater where an inner eye scans pictures, mental images. In this view ideas are no more than immaterial things (!) and we are free to choose among them as we will. This simple, sort of default understanding of our minds, turns out to involve the whole western way of viewing belief, truth and free will.

This Image of the mind as a Cartesian Theater is very important for buttressing up the whole concept of a revealed religion, which requires that people can choose to believe in it or not. By this view of the mind there is no inherent attributes of the ideas themselves that could assure us we are not being fooled by the demon of Descartes famous doubt; the demon he postulated was capable of producing a world of illusion by fooling all our senses. What Descartes saw was that there is no way to leave our private movie theater and check on things; we can never, ever know if what we know is true. There is an absolute skepticism here which, as Stewart points out, seems to demand an unqualified leap of faith.

Daniel Dennett demolishes the picture-theory of mind nine ways to Sunday. It turns out we may not know how consciousness works in cutting edge neuroscience but we are quite sure it does not work like this. One of his more colorful critiques is also as easy to understand as it is profound. He asks about this eye in the middle of the theater which he names a homunculus to capture the image of the little controller in our head this picture-theory of the mind needs.

MIBWhat is telling the homunculus what to believe? It must have an even smaller homunculus, complete with its own movie theater, in its own head. Of course this second, smaller homunculus will need an even smaller third one in its head and so on, right down the hall of mirrors in an infinite regress. Dennett points out there can be no such self sitting in the center of the head calling the shots. Neuroscience supports this conclusion; although an executive center of the brain has been tentatively identified, its characteristics are not quite what we might suppose. As far as we can tell there is no central location in the brain. What we see instead is that every thought involves numerous areas of the brain simultaneously; recall our discussion of the grandmother neuron. What this leads us to do is reconsider the ontological status of those things we are aware of due to the brain’s processing.

“We have no choice but to believe what we understand.” Stewart provides us with a vivid metaphor for the difference in views here. We tend to think of our minds, he says, as a jar full of marbles which are all the ideas we have. Consciousness is the jar, the container holding this endless parade. The radical philosophy simply asserts there is no jar. The ideas themselves, the interplay of patterns in the neuron soup, that is all there is. But this interplay is not random.

Brains evolved to adapt to their environment.

This is another truism hard to really grasp the full implications of because we are sure we already get it. Consider this – the environment of every human being who has ever lived has never contained a god or demon walking around as real as you or I. Nor will you ever shake hands with an ideology. We find these in the conceptual mind, nowhere else. This doesn’t deny the possibility of visionary experiences, other classes of beings and all that. It simply puts such things squarely where the evidence from the daily life of people for eons insists it belongs.

Here in the world beyond the conceptual labels we manufacture, everything which makes an impression upon our body carries with it an inherent, shall we say, reflexivity; it states its own form of being. It is its own evidence.

That which makes what is real, seem real to us – that is what we should learn to bow down to. If we did we would immediately awaken to a world full of ignorant abuse at every turn, for the ecological reality of our situation has grown dark. We lost sight of the fact that what we need is not much more than simply food, clothing, and shelter if we have joyful companionship and a way to contribute to the well being of our self and others. We have become so enamored with our conceptual gymnastics that as a species we are at risk of losing the ability to provide this simple food, simple clothing and simple shelter for ourselves.

This is a molecular world, everywhere the truth of it is self evident. The industrialized culture has not been dealing with it very skillfully. The conceptual abstractions through which we conduct our economics and politics have placed us at risk of not recognizing what is self evident; namely that what cannot be sustained, will not be sustained.

Instead of the absolute Descartes skepticism we could adopt a great certainty in the self evident truths we discover in the moment by moment reality of this life.

Trumping Nature’s God

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
United States Declaration of Independence

“Is it still a durable union? There has never been a Trump so close to such   power.”
Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump

 

We have been examining atoms and void as the representative knowledge of modernity. The world over this view has come to be associated with the farthest reaches of our science and our science has come to be seen as the most reliable way we have discovered of separating what is real from what is not.

Philosophers, theologians, and psychologists, no less than mothers, fathers, students and teachers, all take for granted that at the scale of the very, very tiny this universe is all about atomic elements. At the other end of the scale, regardless of whether we are a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, we also share the view that we inhabit an infinite universe. Though only a few of us will become specialists in sub-atomic physics, molecular biology, or cosmology, we all participate in our zeitgeist to one degree or another.

This is a remarkable thing, an outcome of the globalization of science. It is all the more remarkable when we recognize this shared knowledge as the success of radical philosophy after its long and tortuous battle through the history of ideas.

Radical philosophy?

This is the term Matthew Stewart uses in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, a work highly recommended, particularly for the citizens of North America just now. In it he examines the intellectual debt of the founding fathers and explains just what they were trying to do by forming our constitutional republicanism. That many of the founding fathers were Masons and held to the religious philosophy of deism is fairly well known but other treatments I have read failed to grasp how deism exceeded the “watery expression of the Christian religion” found in the idea of a watchmaker God. Instead of seeing deism as a movement that “arose in Britain around the turn of the eighteenth century” he identifies it with an intellectual tradition spanning centuries and incorporating “ethics, political theory, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind and epistemology.”

The crux of the sociological question the eco-crisis confronts us with concerns how we are to understand “nature and Nature’s God.”

A cottage industry has churned out title after title explaining for conservative Christians how North America was founded as a religious nation. Mormonism, the quintessential American religion, even teaches it is to be the new Zion and that the history of America is inseparable from the Biblical history of salvation. These conservatives share “deep and persistent assumptions about the nature of human experience: that we govern ourselves through acts of faith; that all authority must rest on the assertion of belief in some higher authority; and that all would be well if we could return to the simple faith of our fathers.”

The alternative view is succinctly captured in a single paragraph in Nature’s God I would like to quote in full:

“Yet ‘Nature’s God’ properly belongs to the radical philosophical religion of deism. It refers to nothing that we commonly mean by the term ‘God,’ but rather to something closer to ‘Nature.’ It tells us that we are and always have been the source of our own authority; that we govern ourselves not through acts of faith but through acts of understanding; and that if we should find ourselves beholden to some other imagined authority, this can only mean that we have constructed the conditions of our own servitude. The Declaration of Independence – precisely where it superficially seems to invoke the blessing of the established religion – really stands for an emancipation of the political order from God.” (Italics added)

In this year’s presidential election contest the GOP seemed to offer the conservative Christian voting block Ted Cruz and the secular voting block Donald Trump. The fundamentalist religious position of Ted Cruz had been incomparably isolationist and dogmatic. He was best known for refusing compromise with fellow senators in a willingness to cause a global financial crisis on a matter of principal. Though he seems to have been universally disliked by members of his own party (not unlike Donald Trump) he did provide a clear cut example of what the refusal to compromise looks like. He became a poster child for purity of principles (or is that bodily fluids?) that has no need to even listen to the other side of a debate, something that has characterized our deadlocked political process for quite some time now. For fundamentalists like Ted Cruz, compromise is not a sign of psychological maturity in recognition that the common good has value. Instead compromise is seen as a sign of weak faith.

ISIS is behaving in the same way. It is a characteristic of dogmatism.

Turning our attention to Donald Trump it might seem we are now in the other camp, he is certainly not an orthodox religious fundamentalist. There is no talk here of any higher authority than his “great brain.” What he represents is the culmination of a culture of entitlement. He has no need to listen to his critics, engage in rational debate or even present detailed plans. All that messy work of a constitutional republic is part of what has made America a country of losers, according to his narrative. The strongman formula he is offering the electorate is so much more direct. His campaign is not offering secular, rational debate but religion in its purest form; sacred violence and the sacrifice of the scapegoat.

Violence attends his rallies. Violence attends the protests of his rallies. Violence decorates his speech and is a constant undertone of his personal character. Is it so hard to say out loud what is so obvious psychologically, that he is offering to take this country to war? “I’ve said all along we should have kept the oil…” How much clearer can all this get? Though he may not be seeking a theocracy like Cruz and the Mormons, he is offering no less of a faith-based vision. He believes in the greed-is-good, might-makes-right school of what I like to call Babylonian Capitalism. We are in some kind of weird apotheosis in our ritual worship of the lady and the beast with the election of Donald Trump as the GOP candidate for president who has only one qualification for the highest office in the land – he is rich.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it. Maybe. Still, we should be quick to recognize religion masquerading as politics. We should know to be wary of anyone who offers nothing but contempt for cooperation and compassion. They lack the wisdom to appreciate the nature of duality as complimentary and so seek to cut the world right in two.

In the previous century the clash of nations was driven by ideology. The long intellectual fight against communism was exactly that, an intellectual fight. Wherever it became a hot war, such as in Korea and Vietnam, it arguably became an unmitigated disaster. Communist propaganda revolved around the possibility of improving the lot of mankind through the use of reason alone in a country of atheists, but really amounted to little more than a secularization of Christianity; the proletariat, the working man, takes the place of the saved elite remnant, and the future coming of communist society after the collapse of capitalism is its version of the coming of the kingdom of god. While Marx may have valuable corrective critiques for capitalists, it was Lenin and Stalin that made communism a household word. Millions and millions of lives were sacrificed on the altars of these true believers.

Nazism dispensed with the veneer of rational analysis. More specifically, it nurtured an anti-intellectual milieu in which the reasoning of the philosopher was suspect but the rationalization of the bureaucrat was sacrosanct; the death camps were efficient, the indoctrination of the youth pervasive. Though they were bitter ideological enemies with the communists, millennial dreams also fueled the Nazi religion of blood and soil, promising the coming of the thousand year rule of the world by the Third Reich. Hitler promised one thing, to make Germany great again. When we view the film clips from Nazi Germany and look back on the mass gatherings surrounded by fire and enormous banners, when we see the faces of those people so enraptured, listening to their charismatic leader, it looks to us like nothing so much as the reanimation of some ancient paganism.

Most people are not familiar with the history of ideas. When education became job training we lost sight of the value of the humanities. In the process we were miserably impoverished and left stripped of our defenses against the darker turns of history. The generals and the strongmen of history have always insisted that their chosen path of violence is the only real lever by which history is made. I suggest, however, a more careful analysis of the evidence speaks to the power of ideas as having a far more enduring legacy among human societies. Ignorance of these ideas and the roles they have played in the clash of nations is, sadly, no protection from their fallout.

As a country we do not like to think of ourselves as a people that go about picking fights. Though the factual history of both Vietnam and the Gulf Wars involves just that, we needed the pretense of Tonkin Gulf and 9-11 respectively to sell the idea to the country. How these things do come home to roost. In Donald Trump we see a blatant bully, ourselves with our mask of pretense removed. Who knows, this just might be a sign of political maturation on our part; we are certainly having our noses rubbed into the more shadowy parts of our republic just with what has happened in the United States so far under his influence.

A fairly recent global poll, one not discussed in North America, found that the majority of the people throughout the world, when asked what they believe the largest threat to world peace to be, responded it was the United States. I am not sure they were wrong. I guess that is up to us to decide.

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After publishing this yesterday it was brought to my attention that two of the blog writers I respect had also been inspired to address the same issue of war. John Michael Greer wrote They Died of Progress about the shoddy arms procured by the U.S. Military and Dimitri Orlov published A Russian Warning. I believe my readers will find them both interesting.

Object Oriented Ontology

“Reality is made up of nothing but substances – and they are weird substances with a taste of the uncanny about them, rather than stiff blocks of simplistic physical matter.”
Graham Harman, On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl

“Form is like a glob of foam; feeling, a bubble; perception, a mirage; fabrications, a banana tree; consciousness, a magic trick — this has been taught by the Kinsman of the Sun. However you observe them, appropriately examine them, they’re empty, void to whoever sees them appropriately.”
Buddha

 

Once, in the ongoing struggle against prejudice it was said, “you cut us, do we not bleed?” Today we could say “you cut us, are we not light?” This is the telling feature of our shared molecular world; quarks exchanging gluons form nuclei, particles sharing photons form atoms, atoms sharing electromagnetically form molecules and molecules form the 10,000 things. All things are the same here, one taste.

Interestingly the tales of gods will most likely not travel well; force your convictions about the unseen onto another people with their own traditions about these things and you are unlikely to be extended a warm welcome. The whole sorry tale of missionaries and colonialism, not to mention religious wars, witness to how divisive such things can be. On the other hand, if instead of talk of gods you talk of molecules, then you will find that whatever country you might visit they are speaking the same language you are, the language of shared mathematics and theory. We are quite sure melting a glacier and polluting a river in Tibet is the same as doing so in Alaska. We are not so sure meditating in Tibet and praying in Alaska are the same at all. Interesting.

Our minds are easily hypnotized until they alight only on the small, mundane concerns of the human world. We get bewitched by the worldly dharmas, spinning endless tales of hopes and fears around happiness and suffering, fame and insignificance, praise and blame, gain and loss. The opposite view is that there is an intrinsic worth to the mountains, plants and animals we encounter that is not dependent on the norms of mankind.

The molecular dance, from cosmos to orgasm, is playing with us right here and right now, and we don’t even notice. The powerful alluring attraction of the weaving, buzzing light-dance is closer to us than our own breath. How could it be otherwise when in the final analysis it is what we are? Tuning into the rainbows of the biosphere, to speak poetically, is no more difficult than relaxing one’s grip on our individual cares and concerns; to simply sit in grateful awareness of the grand play of the whole.

How can you know of the fantastic roller coaster of biochemical pathways and the grandeur of our celestial neighborhood and not spend an hour or two just receiving in quiet contemplation what it feels like to be invited to dance at this ball? Do you think you are going to be here forever?

The one thing we know about this molecular world of ours is that change is the only constant. What you are, right now, will not always be as it is right now. Dare to consider what this means for those you know; you might want to “shower the people you love with love” in James Taylor’s fine advice. Train to be awake to how precious this day is.

Our society values objects more highly than relationships and experiences. For us the seemingly measurable objectivity of objects seems more real than the touchy-feely world of values and processes. So we ask ourselves, what are these puzzle pieces we find out here in our molecular world. Through an interplay of language and perception our experiences are populated with objects. We give the puzzle pieces labels and we are off to the races, able to think about umbrellas and stars and petrochemicals. It is as if the ‘atoms and void’ scaled up to ‘things in space.’ Everywhere we look – in any direction, at any scale, with any sensory modality – boundaries make clear distinctions among objects; this blade of grass is unlike this other, this leaf is not the same as that one. This demarcation carries on until ‘things’ are multiplied quite literally beyond comprehension.

Perhaps this labeling is why it is easy for us to become jaded and bored, taking the whole strange goings-on so for granted we barely even notice something very odd is happening at the heart of all this.

We went looking for those billiard-ball atoms and what we found were probability waves, and all the other quantum weirdness. That particular weirdness is confined to the unimaginably tiny scales of Plank’s uncertainties, which makes us uncomfortable enough. Not quite the solid foundation we were hoping for. But as things scale up and molecular aggregation continues another dimension of weirdness opens up with the emergent nature of things. Emergence: H2O is not wet, water is; nor can the wetness of water be reduced to an H2O molecule. Yet wetness has just as much claim to being really real as the hydrogen and oxygen atoms, even though wetness will only appear where particular molecular interactions occur; those of just the right temperature and pressure to avoid water’s phase shifts to ice or steam.

There is another dimension of weirdness inherit in even the most seemingly ordinary of objects. In the history of Western thought quite a debate has been carried on around what a thing-in-itself might be and how, or if, we could ever come to know such an ontological monster if such did exist. All human knowledge must, of necessity, be presented to our minds in human terms. That is, whatever we might come to know about the cosmos, however true and useful it might prove itself to be, will never provide a means by which we will be able to judge the accuracy of our knowledge in any kind of absolute sense. Kant is well known for supposing the shape of the organs by which we think also shapes what is thought. Thought requires assumed and unquestioned scaffolding i.e. our intuitive understanding of time, and space, cause and effect. (They are like the furniture of the mind allowing thoughts to come and visit.) The content of our thought always presupposes distinctions between objects, so every ‘thing’ is in a particular place and every ‘change’ takes place at a particular time.

Carrying this weirdness in yet another direction we have to face squarely how strange it is to have thinking meat. Neuroscience is proposing that consciousness is a product of nervous tissue. As Francis Crick observed this is a most Astonishing Hypothesis. The innermost senses of awareness, including all the heights and depths of love and hate, enlightenment and delusion, are in some fashion the result of the interaction of all those billions of individual nerve cells in the brain.

Rather as wetness results from the interaction of all those billions of H2O molecules in a drop of water.

We have to be careful here. We can have all the right cards in our hand but still play them wrong and lose our chance at a liberating insight.

To say, for example, atoms and void is a picture of a mechanical meaninglessness is to go far beyond what is warranted by the evidence. If we are going to define awareness as something only living things have, then we will need another term for how the electron is “aware” of the proton (and visa versa) evidenced by their mutual attraction. But isn’t awareness the foundation of consciousness, the one irreplaceable element of clarity, transparency? I have a stomach and hunger, as does a bird, a bee, a fish. I have an eye and with it become aware; how different is my optic awareness than that of the fish or bee? What of the bird, a sheep, an ape? Perhaps the human experience is not at all similar in content but in kind, that is, what it is like to have optical awareness of an environment. Examine carefully and it is hard to remain sure many, if not most, of humankind’s most treasured experiences are absent from among our animal relatives. Somewhere on this spectrum of weird objects consciousness emerges from awareness. The science community is careful interpreting their data but here and there the impossible to ignore is getting mentioned, as for example in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (pdf).

Yet another dimension of this multidimensional weirdness concerns all those distinctions by which all these objects come to be objects at all. Those distinctions are ultimately illusory. Animate, inanimate, aware or otherwise – there are only molecules contemplating molecules. It is all of the one taste.

The final weirdness: nothing can come from nothing; something cannot be reduced to nothing. These are explained in Epicurus’ poem. There is appearance and there is emptiness, atoms and void, that which is and that which is not. This is an old debate. Hinduism was said to assert a cause could produce an absence – Shiva could dance the universe into destruction so a supernatural creator God was needed to bring it back again. Buddhists disagreed, insisting instead on what we recognize today as the laws of the conservation of matter and energy. In the Buddhist view the emptiness that arrives at the end of Shiva’s dance is already inherent in all the objects throughout the universe right now.

Now something beyond the weird. Every human infant, when seeing the motes playing in a shaft of golden sunlight, reaches forth their hand in delighted wonder. This expression of will embodies not just what we are, but something primal about what the earth is. We catch a glimpse of the world as will and representation, to use Schopenhauer’s most excellent phrase.

What we touched on before relates to appearance-emptiness as atoms and void. Then we touched on awareness and consciousness which is concerned with clarity-emptiness but this last image, the infant hand caressing the sunbeam, this is something more. There is another irreducible element within experience; I’ll refer it to luminosity-emptiness. This is the warmth of bodhichitta that cracks you open with a depth of feelings that leaves the mind with an exquisitely vulnerable soft spot. In other words, beyond the astonishing hypothesis that consciousness is involved with nervous tissue is the Outstanding Hypothesis that in the depths of love, fragile and yet relentless, we gaze into the heart of the cosmos.

Now I said we have to be careful. This is starting to sound way too New Age; mystic thinking should be precise, not muddle headed.  It is all too easy to mouth platitudes like ‘God is love’ or ‘All you need is love’ and completely shut out any contact with this weird aspect of things I’ve been trying to acknowledge. The platitudes can put us back to sleep where we lose our mindfulness, lose touch with the wonder in the existential configuration of our strange circumstances as conscious human beings.

Then, if we are not careful but are honest with ourselves, well, then “if you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all.”