“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.”
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.”