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.”

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 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 Tibetan Wheel of Life captures this idea graphically by showing that all possible states of existence share a common hub and rim, a common inside and outside.

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. They 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.

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. We can learn to take the emptiness our science has revealed as a tonic. 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 divinities 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 tunnels, winds and seeds; the nadi, prana and bindu of the mammalian nervous system that allows me to be aware of you… Through direct experience we participate in this world as sacred.

In my mind this is what it means to bring Buddhism to the West. It is not meant to be just another religion in the great melting pot. It would be better understood as the harbinger of emptiness, a clearing house for a culture in decline, and a creator of yogis and yoginis. We 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,  like a fountain of overflowing jewels often found in thangkas. A Buddhist finds 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 yogi 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. The traditional teachings talked about course and subtle elements. The molecular world is the world of the subtle elements for us moderns, our doorway. These, and studies like them, become grist for the mill of our contemplative awareness.

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, not unlike trillions of Tantric deities enthroned in their 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.

The Rack and the Wreck

“My only earthly wish is to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds. Nature will be bound into service, hounded in her wanderings, and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.”
Popularly attributed to Francis Bacon

 

All this month courageous people are putting their bodies on the line to bear witness to the madness of continued social domination by the fossil fuel industries. It is hard to even imagine a world ordered around an alternative to the recycling of petroleum-dollars; most any change at all would also involve changes to the international reserve currency it creates and the geopolitics it dictates.

We burn oil in our factories, on our farms, and in our houses; we burn it as we move down roads, fly across the sky and cross the oceans; it lubricates our machines and is a vital ingredient in the production of plastic and many of the other materials we take for granted today ranging from pharmaceuticals to clothing. The bottom line is that modern cities and global trade cannot be run without it. The more you are able to bring an engineer’s appreciation to the vast human accomplishments that have been enabled due to the unique physical and chemical characteristics of fossil fuels, characteristics shared by no other known substance in the universe, the more thoroughly you will understand how very radical it is to propose we leave the remaining coal and oil in the ground and not burn it to buy ourselves another few years of business as usual.

Those brave people participating in civil disobedience have no clearer vision detailing how we are going to extract ourselves from this mess than do you or I. What then motivates them to take this old David and Goliath stone of popular protest against the earth’s largest corporations?

I am sure there are as many nuanced reasons for placing one’s own person and security at risk in these protests as there are people willing to do so. However, it is also safe to say something is uniting this movement all across the world. That something is the realization that business as usual simply cannot continue. Economics and ecology are on a collision course. Faith in the legitimacy of our institutions may not survive the train wreck.

I wish I could know how many of those willing to take the radical step across the line from law abiding citizen to civil protestor also share this radical analysis. What they are asking for actually entails no less than a complete reorientation of mankind’s activities from a focus on growing material industrial production to… something else.

It has been over forty years now since the LtG study clearly stated the world probleque. As the decades passed more and more evidence was gathered, bolstering the case for an ecological day of reckoning but the response has been characterized more by talk than by meaningful actions taken to stop the industrial Juggernaut. Talk, talk, talk; how much more time do we have for talk and studies? The point is to stop.

Here’s the good news. You and I don’t need to wait for society to catch up to our ideals, nor must we wait for an awakening to our real peril to be shared by our neighbors and friends before we take action in our own lives. Our times desperately need lifestyles that witness to the viability of alternatives to consumerism and corporate oligarchy. Today you can choose to take seriously the teachings about right livelihood and seek out ways your life can stand for the healing of the earth.  Your life can stand as a witness to the power of love and kindness against the dog-eat-dog competition of cancerous capitalism. Maybe you can’t change your outer circumstances just now but you can check out with your intention and start planning for tomorrow. Your life can stand for the creativity and productivity of individuals and families over and against the image of man as mouth. That is the hero of consumerism; man-the-mouth, only able to consume what is created and produced by others. Your hands and feet also have eyes, use them and just see what they teach you. Plant a garden, study biology and ecology, learn to mix your mind with earth’s sacred places in your meditation, join protests, write books, make art – DO something.

Then you will discover what power is.

It is not found in some home in the sky woven from abstractions and anthropomorphic projections. It is found right here in the buzzing, bumping, bubbling world of molecules where every action has a reaction and every reaction is a cause of the next action. For better and for worse, we are all engaged inescapably in karma mechanics this side of the abyss.

All of us born in the overdeveloped world have a misleading sense of entitlement. One of the hardest ideas for the ego to grasp is that the universe seems wholly indifferent to your personal hopes and dreams, fears and sufferings. We come to consciousness surrounded by nurturance and caring; necessities in species with long childhoods such as ourselves. It takes a maturing of that consciousness to recognize its impersonal roots. This is made all that much harder in cultures as transfixed with human stories and raised as isolated from the nonhuman environment as we are.

Western cultures include in their history of ideas this notion that we need to be at war with nature. The image of placing nature on the torture’s rack came to mind for Francis Bacon for a couple of reasons we can immediately understand. One was no loftier than simple revenge: ‘nature has condemned us to suffer death, disease and embarrassing sexual indignities but by god we can make her suffer too!’ (Those who see in this cognitive swamp the driving forces behind the war of the sexes and male chauvinism are not mistaken. Nor are those who see here the source of the demon flowers of our nuclear weapons.)

The other reason the torturer’s rack came to mind as an image of the scientific method is a bit more elaborate. In a properly designed experiment ‘nature’ is placed in an artificial environment in which we can exercise control over the variables affecting the circumstance being studied. Experimentation, while holding everything else the same, then ‘stretches’ one variable ‘unnaturally’ to research what affect it has. Just as the rack used a wheel, a type of lever, to multiply the effect of the force applied, so a well designed scientific experiment can uncover the workings of nature far out of proportion to the minute details it is able to manipulate.

Consider for example the DNA research of Francis and Crick. X-ray analysis of the molecular structure of our germ cells is a rather esoteric detail that matters most to biological specialists. Yet the cumulative effect of this line of research has remade the very image and understanding of what it means to be a human being, a member of what we can now refer to scientifically, not religiously, as the family of man.

We may have arrived at this knowledge by way of racks instead of revelation but it is not without its own type of blessing. The science parts ways with religion in one crucial aspect; these heretics over in the other valley, with their different gods and languages, skin colors and foods are just as much your brothers and sisters as any other member of Homo sapiens who has ever lived. The science defuses the priestcraft-politician deception that the declared enemy du jour is less than human. The infidels are not in fact sub-human vermin, or to put it in modern parlance; the lives cut to pieces by our cluster bombs are no less precious to those in poor countries than they are to those of us finding ourselves in rich countries.

When all we had as a species to guide us were the stories we made up, it was possible to hold the brotherhood of man as the highest value even while dehumanizing the enemy, without suffering the cognitive dissonance that arises from trying to believe two contradictory assertions at the same time. Now days, while our societies still go through the motions of demonizing our enemies, it no longer carries the kind of absolute justification that was so easily at hand in previous centuries. We cannot undo what we know.

Those bodies being thrown on the gears of the industrial machine protesting its ecological havoc are engaged with an enemy we all recognize is no other than ourselves. It is our lifestyle choices that have perpetrated this madness these forty plus years, even as enormously powerful social institutions have pursued their vested interests by shutting down the viable alternatives.

There is one more allusion the torturer’s rack brings to mind, one I don’t subscribe to but recognize its popular appeal and one Francis Bacon most likely believed. The use of torture is normally justified by the pious (religious or political) as a means to force human beings to tell the truth. I personally believe any information obtained this way is highly suspect and that the real role of torture is to terrorize populations at home but we are looking at the rack as a metaphor of the scientific method, not the actual efficacy of torture. Assuming then that Mr. Bacon believed truth could be found by such means, what are we looking at?

The rack is a mechanical instrument applied to an organic subject. Using the rack involves action; moving the levers and wheels, tightening the straps and all the rest. The subject is ‘nature’ and only through engaging in these ‘unnatural’ activities could the truth be found.

What previous images of the search for truth did this image of nature on the rack displace? In the Hellenistic history of the West the pursuit of truth was what a gathering of philosophers in an Academy could find by reasoning among themselves in careful dialog. There was no need to engage in experiments since the senses could be so easily mislead. Reason alone could detect the eternal truths. This image slowly gave way as the centuries rolled into the Middle Ages to the truth being found by Popes and Bishops and the cloistered at prayer. Revelation would provide that final leap to ultimate meaning reason alone could not accomplish. Again there was no need to engage in experiments to understand what is really going on since that would be confusing the source of meaning with creation instead of the creator. Already knowing everything important about life, the universe and everything due to revelation, there was little need to engage oneself with the lowly labor of the mechanical artificers.

That God died and left the human being.

We should have seen it coming; it was the implied message of Christianity’s dying man-God. Can you see how the rack was a child of the cross?

Left to our own devices we became painfully aware of the frail nature of our mental tools and recognized a frightening propensity for self-deception. It is as if in our endarkenment we resolved to set aside our childhood toys and learn what we could about this world and this life. We became interested in knowing not just what we think is going on, wrapping our hard earned wisdom in yet another imaginative story of our own invention, but turned towards knowing what we can about what is – whether or not it conforms to our preconceptions.

We dared to place ourselves on the rack and ask what we really are. What we found looking through one end of our scientific instrument was evolution playing out within infinite space. What we found looking through the other end: the Epicurean atoms and void, the Eastern appearance-emptiness; we discovered the molecular world, inseparable from ourselves.