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 his possibly heretical 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. He has come a long way from the traditionally incarnational thought of previous Christian thinkers. 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.

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.

There are mysteries here no science of our age has begun to unravel. The soul as Descartes understood it may not have stood up to later critique but the relationship between seemingly immaterial conscious experience and the brain’s neural biology is far from understood. However, there are interesting avenues of query that might restore the value to an embodied mind and even the older intuition behind the incarnational speculations. Modernity’s relativism assigns meaning to human thought alone, what you think is true for you can be true for you but may not be for me. This might be a profound misunderstanding of the nature of things. Our experience might not be a simple anything-goes affair dependent only on our human predilections. It might very well depend on the organization of the planet as a whole. These speculations have been called the ecology of mind or the embodied mind theories.

“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 of patterns 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 enormous universe filled with countless galaxies. 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.

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

 

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, 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, insight 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? 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, from at least one point of view, illusory. Animate, inanimate, aware or otherwise – there are only molecules contemplating molecules.

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 love 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 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 and how we really feel, well, then “if you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all.”

Puzzle Pieces

“Wheels within wheels in a spiral array
a pattern so grand and complex,
time after time we lose sight of the way
our causes can’t see their effects.”
Natural Science, Rush

 

The delicate dance of molecular docking describes how ‘things’ arise from the ‘atoms and void.’ The very precise folding of proteins, for example, forms very exacting spaces on which its interactions with its environment will take place. An enzyme fits the protein’s molecular dock perfectly, like a hand in a glove. Everywhere we care to look we find interdependent molecular forms behaving as puzzle pieces shaped by the endless tinkering of evolutionary time. Scaling the interlocking shapes, we arrive at ecology’s explanation of a keystone species as a dramatic example of how living puzzle pieces work together to maintain the tapestry of a thriving ecosystem. The behavior of these keystone species shapes the dynamic homeostasis of their part of the biosphere. Or scaling the interlocking shapes in another direction we arrive at conceptual models where ideas and observations are made to fit with one another harmoniously. When they do we say things make sense.

Deep in the night world of the Chauvet caves, a night world much larger than our day world, we painted the spirit animal that came abundantly from the earth’s dark womb. Our ancestors relied on those animals for making the lives they shared together with family and tribe possible. There in the vast dark, embraced by massive rock, the shamans recorded the basic affinity of the hunter and the hunted. Indigenous wisdom recognized the spirit of an animal and paid it reverence. While a village may kill a dozen buffalo they would also perform a rite of thanksgiving for the archetypal buffalo, the buffalo spirit. They recognized individual animals as representatives of what we would call the species. They maintained a balance with the earth by honoring the species, promising to respect and protect it. To hunt an animal to extinction would be to remove its puzzle piece forever from the dynamic tapestry of life, diminishing the richness of the earth instead of enriching it.

Contrast this with our age when the extinction rate is estimated to be a thousand times that of pre-industrialized earth.

Life saving medicines work because, as far as we can tell, they alter these molecular interactions just so, just the way they need to be to bring health back to the organism. I wish I knew a molecule that could cure us. I don’t but I do suspect I know which molecule gave us our disease.

Information at the molecular level, though it is what our senses deal with directly, is far too overwhelmingly detailed for conscious awareness to deal with. Imagine what would be involved simply moving your finger if you had to arrange each molecular change involved. So instead our conscious minds look for patterns and gestalts.

It is, however, worth spending a moment to spell out what is happening at the sensory interface: I hold your hand, the molecules in my fingers meet the molecules in your fingers; pressure and temperature are communicated through thermal gradients as part of an endless cascade of tactile information our skin provides to our nervous systems. More subtle communications go on as well. In the touch we might find warmth, friendship, care, or perhaps anger forcing foreign control over our grip, or perhaps it is no more than a purely political handshake, expressing little more than expected social behavior. These, and any number of other possible contexts, will each involve both emotional and cognitive components and will participate in the ongoing chore of making sense of our experience, making meaning.

All of this is born from an interplay of cause and effect in a grand, if complex pattern. Everywhere actions and reactions: if we put particular molecules in the atmosphere, effects follow. They will play a part in the ongoing pattern making of weather and climate. It really is that simple. That one of the molecules belching out of our tailpipes and smokestacks all across the industrialized world is CO2 and causing global warming is just one of those things. We need oil to live the way we choose to live. Period. Full stop. As long as we choose to continue to live this way we will add to the atmospheric concentration and the parts per million (PPM) will continue to rise into the nightmare territory. We need to be prepared for this.

This molecule, and others in its family polluting our rivers and oceans, lands and forests, is just that – a molecule. Nothing more, nothing less. It is easy to get foggy vision and lose sight of that it seems to me as I survey the range of cultural responses to this most well understood, civilization threatening science. We discuss its politics, philosophy, religious implications, sociological and psychological ramifications, and in a truly impressive display of intellectual ingenuity look into every nook and cranny of our “climate crisis” imaginable. Well, except the one, you know, we don’t talk about.

We could stop putting the molecule in the air. We could change how we live.

On the way to the nightmare PPM numbers out here in the real world we may or may not soon encounter tipping points powerful enough to alter our trajectory. From my study of ecology and the data concerning current energy use and ecosystem damage, I have no doubt a very nasty discontinuity will hit society hard if we proceed with business as usual long enough. The interesting question is how malleable might our existing institutions become in service of the needs of a changed time? Might, to use a fairly topical example, a global financial collapse that lead to a world wide depression, even if accompanied by world war, act as a brake on the rate of excess CO2 production in the long run?

Oil is a molecule, a family of them actually but the point stands. A petrochemical can do things molecules shaped in other forms (and with other energetic bonds) simply will never be able to do. We managed to use this supremely condensed energy source to fuel this great party, to use Richard Heinberg’s dated but percipient metaphor for the many engineering marvels of the fossil fuel age, but the bill has come due. Among its many line items is one I fear most, the one that just might heal us of our hubris, a hubris I would argue we came by honestly.

In the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, human beings’ ingenuity has bent nature to our will. Our ability to understand the molecular world has given us our science and it has given us our engineering and these delivered the cornucopia of goods by which we have wrestled a decently human existence from the bloody hands of hostile nature. In our story, all of life is competition and we are the ultimate competitor.

To a degree no one can yet know with any certainty, the fabulous wonders of our machine age and our impressive industrial achievements were less a product of our clever ingenuity than the fact that we had learned to avail ourselves of this, the most special, energy dense substance in all the earth, the Devil’s blood, the petrochemical – oil.

Images of feeding sugar to bacteria come to mind. I wonder if there were Petri Dish popularity contests to determine who was greatest among the sugar ‘producers’?

The complexity of the human nervous system might share the same cellular fundamentals with the occupants of said Petri Dish but the emergent properties expressed among ourselves as values, financial arrangements, languages, arts and all the rest just might be enough to avoid their fate. Overshoot and collapse are very seriously bad ju ju. To avoid or ameliorate such calamities of cause and effect is exactly what all people of goodwill should be most adamant about. If the LtG model is even only partly right, and the accelerated deterioration of social and environmental systems we see in our headlines indicates it could well be, this is no time for holding back from a radical analysis. What are our options, as a species, for living within the limits of what the environment can supply and assimilate, given the built up infrastructure and institutions we have inherited?

The current inability to even talk about the age of limits is unlikely to last long if tipping points, social and environmental, are triggered. Our refusal to acknowledge that the world of global energy has fundamentally changed, as we begin to view peak oil in our rear view mirrors, condemns us to responding foolishly by failing to understand our true situation. I rather doubt in the halls of power the brokers in realpolitik fail to account for the end of cheap and easy oil. We know they do. It is only the mass media which won’t touch it, only the public which is being left in the dark.

Our minds respond to the brain’s elegant molecular communications in kind, finding a meaningful connection between our awareness and our experience in the frisson we feel when cognitive puzzle pieces fit together just right. A model can weave a bushel load of seemingly disconnected ideas and observations together with a transparency of insight. How is this for one?

Add some understanding of the oil molecule – cracking gasoline, polymer chemistry and such – to understanding how CO2 works in the atmosphere and mix well with a simple comprehension of a resource supply curve. Heat over funny money shenanigans papering over the derivative market black hole by folks jacked up on an injection of externality to maximize corporate pathology. Serve hot with a religious war, cook through a few elections and voila! We just might find ourselves waking up in the age of limits, ready to start speaking about the unspeakable.

Molecules Contemplating Molecules

“If in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling when being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”
Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, italics in the original

“April was the seventh month in a row that broke global temperature records, NASA figures show. Last month smashed the previous record for April by the largest margin ever, the data show. That makes it three months in a row that the monthly record was broken by the largest margin ever.”
April breaks global temperature record, BBC News

 

Physics, chemistry and biology have found we live in a molecular world of cause and effect. Whatever gods might exist, if they are to exist, would be no less subject to the molecular universe than we are. This, as it has been said, is one of the charms (and horrors) of the Lovecraftian gods and the polytheistic pantheons in general, who while unimaginably powerful, remain very much members of this universe and as such are never beyond the pale of restrictions and struggles entirely.

The traditional transcendent God of the West, in contrast, is considered wholly independent of time and space as the one who creates and sustains all these molecular forms ex nihilo, out of nothing. Mystery attends this God inescapably. That mystery is said to be love. Perfection, heaven, cannot be complete if it lacks a reunion in some fashion with those I have most loved. You could give me all the starry sky but without them, the lack would be too great to endure for eternity. This radical transcendence, so childishly domesticated by modern thought, is alone what ultimately satisfies the human heart which has longings of love for loved ones that run so deep the whole universe without them seems empty. Such, anyway, are the teachings.

Our time is uniquely characterized by its abundance of scientific understanding. We have caught a glimpse of ourselves in the mirrors of our sciences but, frightened by the emptiness in the view, we have recoiled in horror. Some are desperately trying to resurrect atavistic stories from the Sunday school and nurseries of our intellectual childhood. Others have reacted to the emptiness by becoming angry atheists, losing the valuable perceptions only open to those who can look on nature with reverence and respect. Both, in my opinion, completely fail to appreciate that the role of the gods – whatever else they might be – is to embody important aspects of human consciousness by which we communicate our gestalt intuitions and ideals; they and their stories give us a means of sharing our deepest hopes and fears with one another. Through devotion to the divine we have the potential to reach beyond our conceptually limited cognitive nets and touch reality in the raw.

I’d like to suggest the programs of the anachronistic fundamentalist and the angry atheist are both non-starters for people sincerely interested in responding well to the ongoing ecological crisis. I think we are being called on to engage in and explore a third option that doesn’t throw out the sacred but also no longer believes naïvely our all-too-human stories are more than that, our stories, our cognitive and conceptual nets. We can learn to take the emptiness our science has revealed as a tonic without denying divine inspiration behind our revelations. Out here, in the molecular world far larger than any story, the planet is heating up and everywhere ecosystems are failing. Hello? Is anybody in there? Now would be a good time to wake up…

The third option uses devotion to penetrate the hearts of the archetypal realm to arrive at the mystery of the nervous system and awareness itself. We are fortunate to have a precious human life and – here is where ecology enlightens us – all that makes it possible is precious to us as well. The strange world of the neurosciences provokes awe within us before the mammalian nervous system that allows me to be aware of you… Through direct experience we participate in this world as sacred. Through direct experience we know that love is possible.

We modern people are all intellectually aware that we live in a molecular universe. For the rest of this post we are going to try and suss out the barest hints at what that might really mean, by looking at it through the eyes of a contemplative.

Contemplating the molecular nature of existence is one of the more direct doorways into non-dual awareness. A range of altered states are available along this dimension which the contemplative can use to learn things directly about conscious experience within an energetic universe. At one end of this spectrum are those states that are aware of the fuzzy nature of our body boundaries, where our extremities are continually participating in an exchange of substances with the environment; a bubbling off of molecules of ‘us’ not unlike what occurs at the surface of evaporating water. This bubbling off is balanced in the bubbling forth of the rebuilding of ‘us’ out of the substances we have absorbed from the environment. We find that the self is a process ontology, not a substance ontology; this flowing is ‘us’.

Next along this spectrum of states are all those in which the molecular exchange penetrates our boundaries through activation of our sensory apparatus. The organic molecules of our being react to the molecules and atomic particles of our environment and the interaction provides what we experience in our various sensory modalities. We become aware of this patch of red or that scent of cinnamon through a cascade of biochemical pathways initiated by particles oscillating at a particular frequency within the visible spectrum in the case of color or shaped in a very particular way to mesh with the olfactory sense and convey information in the case of spices. In the quite mind of contemplation it is not hard to sense these meetings of inner and outer worlds as ongoing, direct energetic exchanges from which our identity is born. Life lives us.

Next stop on our quick survey of altered states involved in assimilating our conceptual understanding of the molecular universe through direct experience are all those involved with the classic practice of gently placing one’s attention on the breath. Breathing is perhaps the most immediate form of ongoing molecular exchange with our environment we can consciously experience. With every breath there is an exchange of carbon dioxide gas, which is poisonous for us, with oxygen which we use to fuel the metabolism of our carbon-based life forms. All thanks of course to the coevolutionary relationship all animals have with the plant kingdom, elegantly complementing our needs by fueling themselves with carbon dioxide and giving up oxygen in exchange. It is as if when we exhale the green environment around us inhales, and visa versa.

During a contemplative session at first these factoids about the molecular universe provide a type of conceptual scaffolding that aids our concentrated focus on the immediate sensations of our body breathing. As the conceptual, language-geared mind grows quite, direct awareness of this exchange grows; it is what we are and feels like a homecoming. Remember that third family of emotions that lead out of poverty mentality and into contentment? One way to use this contemplative learning experience is to educate and nurture just such typically ignored and atrophied aspects of our psychological lives. All these exercises are involved in training the mind to be at home in the molecular universe and recognize, eventually, the joyful play of sacred world.

Which brings us to the last step on this spectrum of states available to the contemplative who takes up the subject of the molecular world. Down in between the sub-atomic particles we have discovered there is a disconcertingly large amount of empty space. In the final exchanges between man and his environment we tune in not to the reality of our shared molecular nature but with the shared empty space between our particles and the shared empty space between the stars in the cosmos at large. (Here the dark kiss of infinity reaches with tentacled tunnels through the night side of Eden as a deathless inorganic being, like a jeweled skull held by Our Lady of the Stars, suffers the hard rain of the stellar kisses, ravishing the lover’s heart. Or not.)

So how does a contemplative go about preparing themselves for participation in these episodes of learning directly from the source? The devotee puts on the hat of the scholar and studies the ways of the elements. Traditionally these are referred to as earth, water, air, fire and space. Each are assigned an indispensable role in maintaining the environment in which consciousness can appear and love can be known: firmness, moisture, a medium of communication, the warmth of emotion and a distance in which to be.

It was easy to dismiss these elemental classification schemes as overly simplistic remnants of our superstitious childhood as our advancements of quantum mechanics and chemistry uncovered the ordered complexity of the periodic table. Carl Jung was the first to recognize the alchemist’s schemes were aiming at a transformation of the alchemist by pursuing their chemistries of turning lead into gold, that there was more going on here in that dense, dream-like symbolism than first meets the eye. In the same way these elemental summary classifications are not as primitive as they seem if they are used to break habitual, reductionist interpretations of our experience. I think there is an important clue here for those of us looking for ways to work with the modern mind. We should exert ourselves to our utmost in our studies, by applying whatever natural curiosity our genius lends us, to understand what we can about what our species has learned about how our molecular universe actually works. The alchemists had a saying that the last page of one book opens the first page of another; we should trust that, trust our own minds. There is nothing to fear from the truth of things. The molecular world is the world of the subtle elements for us moderns, our doorway. It does no good to deny the importance of this knowledge. These elemental investigations, and studies like them, become grist for the mill of our contemplative awareness. We let our head knowledge touch our heart.

Some examples; from the point of view of the germ cell life does not die, it just passes from one bodily form to another; or consider carefully the intimacy of the germ cell’s chromosomal binding in the DNA as it is found in every other of your body’s trillions of cells and one might perceive the act of sexual union extended throughout time and space, a sacred embrace within each nuclei. With an understanding of molecular epigenetics the mind can come to appreciate the histones extending their sinewy receptors from the DNA coils into the surrounding molecular soup as the expression of life’s great library of biochemical recipes skillfully adapting moment by moment by remaining coupled with its ever changing environment. We are all equally members of life’s unbroken stream, all of this and more is our inheritance, but it takes a contemplative mind to recognize the lineage.

In meditation we review what we know by applying it to deepen our direct perception of existence in all its vastness, exactly as it is this instant, all across the cosmos. In meditation we soak ourselves in wonder. We learn to nurture gratitude.