Friday, December 7, 2007

Taking Science on Faith - by Paul Davies

Paul Davis feels that both science and religion “fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.” Neither externally imposed (God-given) laws, nor the multiple universe theory, another way to account for the existence of a life in our universe, can satisfactorily account for the origin of life (see Religion vs Science: Bridging the Gap). The “multiverse” theory proposes that many universes with different sets of laws exist and our universe just happens to have a set compatible with life. Davis instead regards “the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system.” This view is consistent with a number of other articles we have posted. (See some of the entries under the Co-dependent Arising and Cosmology labels in the index).

Paul Davies is the director of Beyond, a research center at Arizona State University, and the author of “Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life.” This article was published as an Op-Ed in the New York Times in November 2007.

Study of Clouds by Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich
Этюд Oблаков

reproduced with permission from the Nicholas Roerich Museum of New York City

Science, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Potential of Evolution - by John Stewart

In the last post, Philip Clayton describes the emergence of spirit from a theistic perspective. The following post instead approaches emergence from a secular perspective, focusing on the emergence of successively higher levels of organization in evolution. John Stewart describes the movement from a collection of “isolated, self-concerned individuals” towards a collective consciousevolutionary awakening” of our interdependence. It is an extract from his book, EVOLUTION’S ARROW: THE DIRECTION OF EVOLUTION AND THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY, that was published as an article called “The Potential of Evolution” in the magazine What Is Enlightenment? John Stewart is a senior labor relations policy adviser with the Australian Government and a member of ECCO, the Evolution, Complexity, and Cognition Research Group at the Free University of Brussels.

A major evolutionary transition is beginning to unfold on earth. Individuals are emerging who are choosing to dedicate their lives to consciously advancing the evolutionary process. They see that their lives are an important part of the great evolutionary process that has produced the universe and the life within it, and they realize that they have a significant role to play.

Redefining themselves within a wider evolutionary perspective is providing meaning and direction to their lives. They no longer see themselves as isolated, self-concerned individuals who live for a short time and then die irrelevantly in a meaningless universe. They know that if evolution is to continue to fulfill its potential, it now must be driven consciously, and that it is their responsibility and destiny to contribute to this.

The most meaningful activity in which a human being can be engaged is one that is directly related to human evolution. This is true because human beings now play an active and critical role not only in the process of their own evolution but in the survival and evolution of all living beings. Awareness of this places upon human beings a responsibility for their participation in and contribution to the process of evolution. If humankind would accept and acknowledge this responsibility and become creatively engaged in the process of metabiological evolution consciously, as well as unconsciously, a new reality would emerge, and a new age would be born.

Jonas Salk

At the heart of this evolutionary awakening is the understanding that evolution is directional. Evolution is not aimless and random; it is headed somewhere. This is very important knowledge. Once we understand the direction of evolution, we can identify where we are located along the evolutionary trajectory, discover what the next steps are, and see what these steps mean for us, as individuals and collectively.

Where is evolution headed? Contrary to earlier understandings, it is now unmistakable that the trend is toward greater interdependence and cooperation amongst living processes. If humans are to advance the evolutionary process on this planet, a major task will be to find more cooperative ways of organizing ourselves.

The trend toward increasing cooperation is well illustrated by a short history of the evolution of life on earth. For billions of years after the Big Bang, the universe expanded rapidly in scale and diversified into a multitude of galaxies, stars, planets, and other forms of lifeless matter. The first life that eventually arose on earth was infinitesimal—it comprised only a few molecular processes. But it did not remain on this tiny scale for long. In the first major development, cooperative groups of molecular processes formed the first simple cells. Then, in a further significant advance, communities of these simple cells formed more complex cells on a much greater scale.

A further major evolutionary transition unfolded after many more millions of years. Evolution discovered how to organize cooperative groups of these complex cells into multicelled organisms such as insects, fish, and eventually mammals. Again the scale of living processes had increased enormously. This trend continued with the emergence of cooperative societies of multicelled organisms, including beehives, wolf packs, and baboon troops. The pattern was repeated with humans—families joined up to form bands, bands teamed up to form tribes, tribes joined to form agricultural communities, and so on. The largest-scale cooperative organizations of living processes on the planet are now human societies.

This unmistakable trend is the result of many repetitions of a process in which living entities team up to form larger-scale cooperatives. Strikingly, the cooperative groups that arise at each step in this sequence become the entities that then team up to form the cooperative groups at the next step in the sequence.

It is easy to see what has driven this long sequence of directional evolution—at every level of organization, cooperative teams united by common goals will always have the potential to be more successful than isolated individuals. It will be the same wherever life arises in the universe. The details will differ, but the direction will be the same—toward unification and cooperation on a greater and greater scale.

Life has come a long way on this planet. When it began, individual living processes could do little more than influence events at the scale of molecules. But as a result of the successive formation of larger and larger cooperatives, coordinated living processes are now managing and controlling events on the scale of continents. And life appears to be on the threshold of another major evolutionary transition: humanity has the potential to form a unified and inclusive global society in symbiotic relationship with our technologies and with the planet as a whole. In the process, “we” (the whole) will come to manage matter, energy, and living processes on a planetary scale. When this global organization emerges, the scale of cooperative organization will have increased over a million billion times since life began.

If humanity is to fulfill its potential in the evolution of life in the universe, this expansion of the scale of cooperative organization will continue. The global organization has the potential to expand out into the solar system and beyond. By managing matter, energy, and living processes on a larger and larger scale, human organization could eventually achieve the capacity to influence events at the scale of the solar system and galaxy. And the human organization could repeat the great transitions of its evolutionary past by teaming up with any other societies of living processes that it encounters.

We are the product of 4.5 billion years of fortuitous, slow biological evolution. There is no reason to think that the evolutionary process has stopped. Man is a transitional animal. He is not the climax of creation. . . .

We are set irrevocably, I believe, on a path that will take us to the starsunless in some monstrous capitulation to stupidity and greed we destroy ourselves first.

Carl Sagan

The great potential of the evolutionary process is to eventually produce a unified cooperative organization of living processes that spans and manages the universe as a whole. The matter of the universe would be infused and organized by life. The universe itself would become a living organism that pursued its own goals and objectives, whatever they might be. In its long climb up from the scale of molecular processes, life will have unified the universe that was blown apart by the Big Bang.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Emergence of Spirit by Philip Clayton

Co-dependent arising, the topic of the last few posts, is closely associated with emergence. In emergence lower levels of mutually interconnected (or co-dependent) parts can give rise to higher levels of organization with new properties. In his article “EMERGENCE OF SPIRIT,” Philip Clayton develops an emergent view of the Cosmos consistent with Theism. Spirit does not emerge from matter according to his view rather it is present from the beginning. However he conceptualizes divine activity as functioning differently at the physical, biological and the mental levels of emergence. The article appeared in the fall 2000 issue of the bulletin of CTNS, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. The following passages have been extracted from pp 15-17 and have been reprinted with permission.

How exactly should we conceive divine action within the Cosmos given the law-likeness of the physical world, the increasing complexity of the biological world, and the conscious agency that we have found to be indispensable in the world of human actors? Just as importantly, if the history of the Cosmos does reveal a gradual "becoming conscious" of the spiritual nature of the universe and its creator, in what sense was that spiritual dimension present and efficacious from the start? Does God only emerge gradually along with the creation (but then the creation can’t be attributed to God!); or is there some sense in which the same God is present and active in the world in different ways during the different periods and at the different levels of cosmic evolution?

It is easy to formulate several unsatisfactory ways of interpreting the suggestion that God affects the physical world. On one side, there are problems with supposing that God is constantly performing physical miracles by communicating divine purpose to rocks and plants and animals, thereby directly causing them to behave in ways that they otherwise wouldn't. On the other, if theism is viable, then talk of divine action can not be purely otiose, merely adding a religious rhetoric to what is better explained in natural terms…

... Fundamental physics does not offer any openings for divine influence (with the possible exception of quantum indeterminacy---a debate that I will not reopen today). If one asks about the matter, i.e. about causation prior to the emergence of life, the answer must be that what ever divine input or organization or there might have been must have been built and from the beginning. Nothing in our understanding of physics suggest the possibility of subsequent direct divine influence over rocks.

Yet in biology we found reason to break with a purely materialist view: there is an informational element in biology, involving the role played by form, structure and fuction, that is crucially different from physics. Moreover there is some anticipation within the biological order of the kinds of purposes we see fully expressed in mental phenomena. To avoid anthropomorphism I used the Kantian phrase purposiveness without purpose. If one grants my position on God’s causal position in influencing thought, and grants proto-mentality in the biological sphere, then one would expect to see divine causal agency, appropriately limited, at levels in the natural history of life prior to the emergence of conscious being. But how is such causal agency to be conceived---especially if, like most theologians in this field, one is committed to avoiding an account that is either interventionist or occasionalist. Theologians today are correct, I believe, in eschewing answers that imagine God introducing a new form of energy into the physical universe or directly causing deviations in the motion of created entities. But if one accepts this limitation, in what sense can God be set to exert a causal influence on or within creation?

…[P]anentheism changes the framework: if the world remains within and is permeated by the divine: then it is possible to speak of divine purposes and goals being expressed even at the stage at which there are no other actual conscious agents. Even the lawful behavior of the natural world can now be an expression or manifestation of the divine character or intentionality.

Because physical phenomena do not function with anything we can identify as “focal" or direct purpose, we may speak of them as manifesting only God’s "autonomic agency," just as the actions of our own bodies are divided between autonomic processes and focal intentions. For the pantheists, the regularities of natural law represents the autonomic or, as it were, habitual operations of divine action apart from God’s specific or focal intentions. By contrast, should God sometimes consciously influence conscious thought processes in humans or other animals, we would speak of these is focal divine actions.

As organisms evolve and begin to undo the in more complex ways, pantheism allows one to speak of the category of divine action that is not merely autonomic---that is, not completely explicable as a mathematical result of God's autonomic agency---but that nevertheless stop short of focal purpose. We can speak of the central features of the biological realm as reflecting the divine character and influence without claiming that kidneys or amoebas themselves possess the goals of functioning as they do...

... Like physical regularities, biological regularities reflect the divine character; yet here, because organisms also behave in a purposive manner, there is a place in principle for speaking of divine influence. The influence in question must be intermediate between the conscious influence that is possible in relation to conscious beings and the apparent impossibility of influence (outside of natural law) in physics. If biological organisms are indeed more than machines, and if it is correct to ascribe drives, strivings in nonconscious goals to them, then there is room for influence on these goals.

…When the pantheistic account is developed in a manner consistent with the logic of emergence, human thoughts and intentions appear as (at least) a three-level phenomena, with a distinct type of divine influence corresponding to each level. (1) Since thought is built upon the enduring regularities within the one physical cosmos, it (like everything else) reflects the constant character of the all-pervading God. Given the framework of panentheism, we may view these regularities as an expression of autonomic divine agency. (2) Like other forms of activity in the biosphere, the human neurological system is not only conditioned by the autonomic or natural-law level, but also by the quasi-intentional level of biological drives and goals. It is thus open to the sort of biological influence or constraint described above. (3) Finally, if human consciousness is indeed an emergent property of our complex neurophysiological structure, then humans (and perhaps some other animals) also exercise a distinctive form of causation: conscious agency. This would in principle allow God to influence our thoughts and motives at the same mental level that other persons influenced them, even though the means may be rather different.

Human thought in this threefold sense is thus not simply a direct, unmediated expression of God’s own focal thoughts and purposes. We might say that human thoughts are divine thoughts that are removed from any simple identity with the divine will buy their location in a context determined by the various "lower" expressions of divine agency, i.e. by the whole course of natural history.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Emergent Properties and Connectionism-by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch

The following is from THE EMBODIED MIND: COGNITIVE SCIENCE AND HUMAN EXPERIENCE (pp. 93-98) which combines insights from Cognitive Science and the Buddhist tradition. It illustrates the co-dependent arising---or emergence, or self-organization---of neural activity between different brain regions. It relates this to Buddhists insights that parse the arising of mental experience into five components or aggregates (forms, feelings/sensations, perceptions, dispositional formations, and consciousness). These may appear to be separate, but are really co-dependently arising aspects of experience. The previous entry, also from the same book, considered the Buddhist view of the co-dependent arising of both self and world. Reprinted with permission of the authors and MIT Press.

… [A]lthough neurons in the visual cortex do have distinct responses to specific features of the visual stimuli, these responses occur only in an anesthetized animal with a highly simplified internal and external environment. When more normal sensory surroundings are allowed and the animal is studied awake and behaving, it has become increasingly clear that stereotype neuronal responses become highly context sensitive. There are, for example, distinct effects produced by bodily tilt or auditory stimulation. Furthermore, the neuronal response characteristics depend directly on neurons localized far from their receptive fields. Even a change in posture, while preserving the same identical sensorial stimulation, alters the neuronal responses in the primary visual cortex, demonstrating that even the seemingly remote motorium is in resonance with the sensorium. (...)

It has, therefore, become increasingly clear to neurosciences that one needs to study neurons as members of large ensembles that are constantly disappearing and arising through their cooperative interactions and in which every neuron has multiple and changeable responses in a context-dependent manner. A rule for the constitution of the brain is that if the region (nucleus, layer) A connects to B, then B connects reciprocally back to A. This law of reciprocity has only two or three minor exceptions. The brain is thus a highly cooperative system: the dense interconnections among its components entail that eventually everything going on will be a function of what all the components are doing.

This kind of cooperativeness holds both locally and globally: it functions within subsystems of the brain and at the level of the connections among these subsystems. One can take the entire brain and divide it into subsections…. These subsections are made up of complex networks of cells, but they also relate to each other in a networked fashion. As a result the entire system acquires an internal coherence in intricate patterns, even if we cannot say exactly how this occurs. For example, if one artificially mobilizes the reticular system, an organism will change behaviorally from, say, being awake to being asleep. This change does not indicate, however, that the reticular system is the controller of wakefulness. That system is, rather, a form of architecture in the brain that permits certain internal coherence is to arise. But when these coherences arise, they are not simply due to any particular system. The reticular system is necessary but not sufficient for certain coherent states such as wakefulness and sleep. (...) In fact, there are many levels of resolution at which such neuronal emergences can be studied, from the level of cellular properties to entire brain regions….

Consider what happens in visual perception in its peripheral stages. (...) The optic nerve connects from the eye to a region in the thalamus called the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) and from there to the visual cortex. The standard information-processing description…is that information enters through the eyes and is relayed sequentially through the thalamus to the cortex where “further processing” is carried out. But if one looks closely at the way the whole system is put together one finds little to support this view of sequentiality. (....) It is evident that 80% of what any LGN cell listens to comes not from the retina but from the dense interconnectedness of other regions of the brain. Furthermore, one can see that there are many more fibers coming from the cortex down to the LGN than there are going in the reverse direction….

Thus even at the most peripheral end of the visual system, the influences that the brain receives from the eye are met by more activity that flows out from the cortex. The encounter of these two ensembles of neural activity is one moment in the emergence of a new coherent configuration, depending on a sort of resonance or active match-mismatch between the sensory activity and the internal setting at the primary cortex. The primary visual cortex is, however, but one of the partners in this particular neuronal local circuit at the LGN level. Other partners, such as the reticular formation, the fibers coming from the superior colliculus, or the corollary discharge of neurons that control eye movements, play an equally active role. (...)

What we have described for the LGN and vision is, of course, a uniform principle throughout the brain. Vision is useful as a case study since the details are better known than for most other nuclei and cortical area. An individual neuron participates in many such global patterns and bears little significance when taken individually. In this sense, the basic mechanism of recognition of a visual object or a visual attribute could be said to be the emergence of a global state, among resonating neuronal assemblies.

At this point we would like to return to topic of emerging biological processes and the five aggregates discussed in the previous chapter. We raised the issue there of whether the aggregates arise sequentially or simultaneously. (...) [C]oncern with the parsing of experience is one of the more remarkable points of convergence between cognitive science and mind full/awareness tradition. To take a sequential view of the aggregates seems similar to taking a sequential view of brain activity. Form would have to come first through some pre-attentive segmentation at the retinal and geniculate level, then sensations and perceptions would arise at the reticular and collicular input, whereas concepts and consciousness would be added at different stages of “higher” brain centers…. If, however, perception cannot be so simply analyzed into a straightforward sequence, then it becomes difficult to separate the “low” level of form from the ”higher” levels of, say, sensations and discernments [italics added to indicate the attributes]. The arising of form always involves some predisposition on the part of our structure. If we take the notion of a heap or a pile (Skandha) as a metaphor for the emerging configurations of a neural network, we will be led to think of the aggregates as resonant patterns in one moment of emergence. (...)

It is possible, then, to see the notion of a heap or pile as a metaphor for what we would now call a self-organizing process. The aggregates would arise as one moment of emergence, as in a resonating network where strictly speaking there is no all-or-none separation between simultaneous (since the emergence pattern itself arises as a whole) and sequential (since for the pattern to arise they must be a back-and-forth activity between participating components). Of course… the aggregates do not constitute an information processing theory. Nonetheless, the neuropsychological approach that we have just adumbrated seems compatible with the direct observation based on mindfulness/awareness meditation, thus making all the more remarkable the fact that this tradition has continued to verify the parsing of experience into coherent moments of emergence.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Middle Way - by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch

This passage is taken from THE EMBODIED MIND: COGNITIVE SCIENCE AND HUMAN EXPERIENCE (pp. 224-226), which juxtaposes insights from cognitive science and from Buddhism. The initial Abhidharma tradition emphasized the absence of a permanent self. The Mahayana tradition, which began 500 years after Buddha's death, in addition emphasized the absence of an independently existing world---or complete groundlessness. The passage summarizes and comments on the Mahayana philosophical argument for groundlessness. The previous post from Carl Sagon’s book helps point out from an objective prospective that our usual view of reality is very limited. Alisa's essay on her meditation experience, the second to last entry, reveals a moment of complete emptiness---which was accompanied by expanded awareness.Reprinted with permission of the authors and MIT Press.

1. ...By definition, something is independent, intrinsic, or absolute only if it does not depend on anything else; it must have an identity that transcends its relations.

2. Nothing in our experience can be found that satisfies this criterion of independence or ultimacy. The earlier Abhidharma tradition had expressed this insight as codependent arising: nothing can be found apart from its conditions of arising, formation and decay.... Nagarjuna took the understanding of codependence considerably further. Causes and their effects, things and their attributes, and the very mind of the inquiring subject and the objects of mind are each equally codependent on the other. Nagarjuna's logic addresses itself penetratingly to the mind of the inquiring the ways in which what are actually codependent factors are taken by that subject to be the ultimate founding blocks of a supposedly objective and a supposed subjective reality.

3. Therefore, nothing can be found that has an ultimate or independent existence. Or to use Buddhist language, everything is "empty" of an independent existence for it is codependently originated.

...Why should it make any difference at all to experience? One might say, So what if the world and the self change moment to moment -- whoever thought that they were permanent? And so what if they are mutually dependent on each other -- whoever thought they were isolated? The that as one becomes mindful of one's own experience, one realizes the power of the urge to grasp after foundations -- to grasp the sense of foundations of the real, separate self, the sense of the foundation of a real, separate world, and the sense of foundation of an actual relation between self and world.

It is said that emptiness is a natural discovery that one would make by oneself with sufficient mindful/awareness -- natural but shocking. Previously we have been talking about examining the mind with meditation. There may not have been a self, but there was still a mind to examine itself, even if a momentary one. But now we discovered that we have no mind; after all, a mind must be something that is separate from and knows the world. We also don't have a worlds. There is neither an objective nor subjective pole. Nor is there any knowing because there is nothing hidden. Knowing sonyata [emptiness]... is surely not an intentional act. Rather (to use traditional imagery), it is like a reflection in a mirror -- pure brilliant, but with no additional reality apart from itself. As mind/world keeps happening in its interdependent continuity, there is nothing extra on the side of mind or on the side of the world to know or be known further. Whatever experience happens is open (Buddhist teachers use the word exposed), perfectly revealed just as it is.

We can now see why Madhyamika is called the middle way. It avoids the extremes of either objectivism or subjectivism, of absolutism or nihilism. As is said by the Tibetan commentators, "through ascertaining the reason -- that all phenomena are dependent arisings--the extreme of annihilation (nihilism) is avoided, and the realization of dependent-arising of causes and effects is gained. Through ascertaining the thesis -- that all phenomena do not inherently exist -- the extreme of permanence (absolutism) is avoided, and realization of the emptiness of all phenomena is gained."

Nature and Wonder: A Reconnaissance of Heaven- by Carl Sagan

This post is from the first chapter of Carl Sagan’s book, THE VARIETIES OF SCIENTIFIC EXPERIENCE: A PERSONAL VIEW OF THE SEARCH FOR GOD, edited by Ann Druyan. It helps place our home, the Earth, in the Cosmos. These excerpted passages---especially without the pictures---can only hint at the power of the chapter. In contrast to the previous entry that evoked a moment of cosmic consciousness from the inside, subjective viewpoint, this entry evokes the experience of cosmic consciousness from the outside, objective viewpoint. Reprinted with permission.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart. It’s a very interesting concept. And in this sense of seeking the deepest interrelationships among things that superficially appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science, I believe, are identical or very nearly so. But the question has to do with the reliability of the truths claimed by the two fields and the methods of approach.

By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of warship. And Albert Einstein said, “I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So if both Carlyle in Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right. (...)

There are a vast number of stars within our galaxy. It’s about 400 billion stars, of which the Sun is one. (...)

...[W]here would the sun be? Would it be in the center of the galaxy, where things are clearly important, or at least well lit? The answer is no. We would be somewhere out in the galactic boondocks, the extreme suburbs, where the action isn't. We are situated in a very unremarkable, unprepossessing location in this great Milky Way Galaxy. But of course, it is not the only galaxy. Very many galaxies, a very large number of galaxies....

(In fact, there are more galaxies in the universe than stars with in the Milky Way Galaxy.) (...) The number of external galaxies beyond the Milky Way is at least in the thousands of millions and perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of millions, each of which contains a number of stars more or less comparable to that in our own galaxy. So if you multiply out how many stars that means …[i]t's something like one followed by twenty-three zeros, of which our Sun is but one. It is a useful calibration of our place in the universe. And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religions.

Many religions have attempted to make statues of their gods very large, and the idea, I suppose, is to make us feel small. But if that's their purpose, they can keep their paltry icons. We need only look up if we wish to feel small.... Edward Young, in the 18th century, said, "An undevout astronomer is mad," from which I suppose it is essential that we all declare our devotion at risk of being adjudged mad. But devotion to what?

All that we have seen is something of a vast and intricate and lovely universe... There is no particular theological conclusion that comes out of an exercise such as the one we have just gone through. What is more, when we understand something of the astronomical dynamics, the evolution of worlds, we recognize that worlds are born and worlds die, they have lifetimes just as humans do, and therefore that there is a great deal of suffering and death in the Cosmos if there is a great deal of life. For example, we talked about stars in the late stages of their evolution. We've talked about supernova explosions. There are much vaster explosions. There are explosions at the center of galaxies from what are called quasars. There are other explosions, maybe small quasars. In fact, the Milky Way galaxy itself has had a set of explosions from its center, some thirty thousand light-years away. And if, as I will speculate later, life and perhaps even intelligence is a cosmic commonplace, then it must follow that there is massive destruction of whole planets, that routinely occurs, frequently, throughout the universe.

... In fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the god portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a God of the galaxy, much less of a universe... I don't propose that is a virtue to revel in our limitations. But it's important to understand how much we do not know. There is an enormous amount we do not know; there is a tiny amount that we do. But what we do understand brings us face to face with an awesome Cosmos that is simply different from the Cosmos of our pious ancestors.

Does trying to understand the universe at all betray a lack of humility? I believe it is true that humility is the only just response in a confrontation with the universe, but not a humility that prevents us from seeking the nature of the universe we admiring. If we see that nature, then love can be informed by truth instead of being based on ignorance or self-deception. If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe and all its intricacy? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship. My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, then our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a God. We would be unappreciative of those gifts if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand if such a traditional God does not exist, then our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival in an extremely dangerous time. In either case the enterprise of knowledge is consistent surely with science; it should be with religion, and it is essential for the welfare of the human species.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Fear of Meditation and its Role in my Life - by Alisa Voll

The following piece is a personal account of a meditation experience provoked by negative emotions – an attempt to see, what Joanna Macy calls, “the true nature of phenomena,” in her book, WORLD AS LOVER, WORLD AS SELF

I feel frozen in irrationally intense anger, and I do not move as the subway train car rattles down to 42nd street where I am to meet my boyfriend. The only thing making the tension in my body bearable is the release the slight sway of the train car provides as the laws of physics force it to tilt first to one side, then the other until it is again fully parallel to the ground beneath it. Most seats are taken, one by me, and a few people are standing. At this point I no longer remember what my boyfriend did that made me so angry. Yet, my body’s anxiety persists. My mind is racing with hateful thoughts. My fingers fidget unconsciously. My breath is shallow; irregular. My heart beats out of my chest, and I feel the unhealthiness of my circumstance. I want to relax; more because of the harm my state causes my being than because I realize that it is irrational.

I close my eyes. Without considering it, because if I do I will refuse to continue, bringing my attention to the air entering my nostrils, I direct it to the lower chamber of my lungs. My belly expands and I notice that the muscles there are tense and must have been flexed for some time. My mind still races. As air continues to slowly enter, it gradually fills the lower, middle, and finally the highest chamber of my lungs. With conscious effort I exhale smoothly, attempting fluidity and calm to the collapse of my shoulders and the shrinking of my lungs. As minutes go by, time slows. Relaxed now, my stomach expands; my chest rising and falling harmoniously.

Becoming enveloped in the internal world of my mind, I hear nothing except the pace of my even breath. Since I was a child, my brother told me that I have a stable, unchanging part so far inside me that it is untouchable by anything. As I sit on the train, I finally feel it; my share of nature’s energy - my essence. It looks like a light amid an ocean of peaceful deep blue darkness. The longer I meditate, the stronger I am able to sense it and the more connected I become to it. There is only silence, except for a quiet buzz of vibrations of nature’s frequency. Time has completely stopped now. As strange as it seems impossible, I am at utter harmony with everything. I do not feel positively or negatively. Floating in the all encompassing infinite space, I simply exist, as the trillions of other specs of energy do, fitting together just right to form the universe.

The train arrives at 42nd street as I lift my lids. I am puzzled by my state as it seems as though I embody peace. This feeling is foreign to me, as usually I am unhappy about something or other. I am no longer mad at my boyfriend, and the reasons why I was no longer concern me. I had never felt such peace before and have not since then.

The incident on the train happened three years ago and was the only successful meditation I have ever had. Though my brother had suggested meditation for my goals of spiritual self-development and self-knowledge, I had always dismissed it. I was not ready to actually put in the work.

Yet knowing myself was and is very important to me. I need to be aware of not only the causes and effects of my moods, my dispositions, but also how these pathways came to be. With that knowledge I am better able to tackle my demons and to live the person and the life that I have wanted to for so long. As revered Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, taught until his death in 1986, an individual is only one in whom the outer is the same as the inner, and the inner the same as the outer. I aspire to understand every iota of my being, so that I may be able to transform my inner to be at peace, and correlate with it, the outer and vice versa.

Only recently, with the clarity that tackling the hardships of being away at college provided me, has the possible validity and role of meditation in forming who I want to be become evident. Unfortunately, my recent attempts at meditation have been unsuccessful. It seems as though I have made no progress since months ago. I am too impatient and find myself unable to concentrate on one sound or sensation of the body, switching from concentrating on the air going into my nostrils, then on my chest rising and falling, then on the air passing through my nasal passage. I do not focus on one sensation for more than a few seconds. My mind may not be thinking about random events in my life, but it is thinking about trying to focus, and throughout the last time I meditated, about how I was slowly falling asleep without noticing it.

I have not been meditating regularly. A part of the skepticism about it, or rather my skepticism about my own ability, is still there. Whenever something does not come easily to me, I reject it and find reasons for why it is unnecessary. Meditation had always been one of these things. This is why if I were more aware on the train, I would have stopped myself from meditating. I am afraid, and have been since I first learned about it, that if I apply great effort and persistence to meditation and I fail, it will be a blow to my self esteem greater than I know how to handle. Logic says that there is a better chance of succeeding at meditation if I genuinely attempt it than if I muse on it. But, I do not function that way yet, free from the bounds of dispositions and insecurities. Even if I sincerely devote myself to learning how to meditate and to learning from it, it will take years for the state of peace and harmony I felt mediating on the subway to transfer over to my daily life.

It is gradually becoming easier, however, to do the things that I am uncomfortable with and that scare me - such as meditation. I have to keep moving forward. Slowly, I dispose of unnecessary conditioned responses manifested as insecurities, and come closer to embodying my essence.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Forgotten City: Turning the Wheel of the Dharma

The following extracts from WORLD AS LOVER, WORLD AS SELF , by Joanna Macy pp. 53-57, describe the Buddha's teaching of Co-Dependent Arising. This dharma---the Pali word for a teaching or law---resonates with many of Spinoza's ideas in THE ETHICS. It teaches the interconnectedness and thus the ever changing nature, or the impermanence of all things (emotions, in/animate objects, etc). It implies that the emotion-laden labels we attribute to these things (especially "bad" or "good"---the labels Spinoza stresses in his Preface to Part IV) are the result of clinging to what is ever changing. Nothing is "bad" or "good." Things just ARE; they exist and change. The excerpt is reprinted with the permission of the author.

The eight-spoked wheel that graces gateways and temple roofs throughout the Buddhist world symbolizes the teaching of the Buddha. It is called the Wheel of the Dharma, the Dharma Chakra. It also represents the central doctrine that his teachings convey: the doctrine of paticca samuppada or the dependent co-arising of all phenomena. As the Buddha said, “they who see paticca samuppada see the Dharma, and they who see the Dharma see paticca samuppada….”

This centerpiece of the Buddha’s teaching is not about a level of reality separate from our daily lives or aloof from the phenomenal world of change. It refers not to any absolute being of essence, but to the process itself—to the way things work, how events happen and interrelate. Hence it is often called the Law—the law of causality….

With fascination I studied the early Buddhist text. I read how the perception of paticca samuppada dawned on the Buddha the night of his enlightenment, and featured in his discourses. I saw how it underlay everything he taught about self, suffering, and liberation from suffering. I noted how it knocked down the dichotomies bred by hierarchical thinking, the old polarities between mind and matter, self and world….

He did not begin with abstractions or generalities, but with the existential factors of life. He named these factors of experience---ignorance, volitional formations, cognition, name and physical form, sensation, feeling, craving and so on---and pursued them relentlessly to determine how they relate to each other. Persistently he questioned, "For this factor to arise, what else must happen? For it to cease, what else must stop?"

Tracing thus the sources of suffering, he did not find a first cause or prime mover, but beheld instead patterns or circuits of contingency. The factors were sustained by their own interdependence. It was then, in that vigil, in the crucible of his attention, that the perception of dependent co-arising swept upon him.

Coming to be, coming to be!...Ceasing to be, ceasing to be! At that thought, brethren, there arose... a vision of things not before called to mind, and knowledge arose. ...Such is form, such is the coming to be of form, such is its passing away. ...Such is cognition, such is its coming to be, such is its passing away. And [he abided] in the discernment of the arising and passing away.

The process nature of reality became clear-its continual flow, the radical impermanence of all things, with no element or entity aloof from change. But the flux was not chaotic or random, for patterns of conditionality emerged. He saw how factors of existence are mutually determined, providing occasion and context for each other's emergence and subsiding.

All the factors of our lives subsist, then, in a web of mutual causality. Our suffering is caused by the interplay of these factors, and particularly by the delusion, aversion, and craving that arise from our misapprehension of them. Hence, the Four Noble Truths: We create our own bondage by reifying and clinging to what is by nature contingent and transient. Being caused in this way, our suffering is not endemic. It can cease. The causal play can be reversed. This is achieved by seeing the true nature of phenomena, which is their radical interdependence. This is made possible by the cleansing of perception through meditation and moral conduct.

Such a vision, however, is hard to convey, because it goes against the grain of both our sensory experience and our desire for security.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Spinoza's Ethics, Preface to Part IV

We have decided to follow up on the last piece, based on a book about Spinoza called BETRAYING SPINOZA, with some of Spinoza's own writing. He is often called a philosopher's philosopher, and his writing is correspondingly dense. THE ETHICS is no exception; however he also included reasonably accessible prefaces and/or appendices to its various parts, which help capture aspects of his thinking.

Summary: The world is not the top-down result of a divine purpose, but rather the bottom-up result of the interaction of natural things. The notion of good and bad, perfection and imperfection do not apply to natural things. Natural things are perfect, or what is the same thing, real, being, or essences. However distinctions such as good or bad are useful to compare the effective activity of a being relative to its potential.
(We welcome your own summary or any other thoughts as a comment.)


Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse. Why this is so, and what is good or evil in the emotions, I propose to show in this part of my treatise. But, before I begin, it would be well to make a few prefatory observations on perfection and imperfection, good and evil.

When a man has purposed to make a given thing, and has brought it to perfection, his work will be pronounced perfect, not only by himself, but by everyone who rightly knows, or thinks that he knows, the intention and aim of its author. For instance, suppose anyone sees a work (which I assume to be not yet completed), and knows that the aim of the author of that work is to build a house, he will call the work imperfect; he will, on the other hand, call it perfect, as soon as he sees that it is carried through to the end, which its author had purposed for it. But if a man sees a work, the like whereof he has never seen before, and if he knows not the intention of the artificer, he plainly cannot know, whether that work be perfect or imperfect. Such seems to be the primary meaning of these terms.

But, after men began to form general ideas, to think out types of houses, buildings, towers, etc., and to prefer certain types to others, it came about, that each man called perfect that which he saw agree with the general idea he had formed of the thing in question, and called imperfect that which he saw agree less with his own preconceived type, even though it had evidently been completed in accordance with the idea of its artificer.

This seems to be the only reason for calling natural phenomena, which, indeed, are not made with human hands, perfect or imperfect: for men are wont to form general ideas of things natural, no less than of things artificial, and such ideas they hold as types, believing that Nature (who they think does nothing without an object) has them in view, and has set them as types before herself. Therefore, when they behold something in Nature, which does not wholly conform to the preconceived type which they have formed of the thing in question, they say that Nature has fallen short or has blundered, and has left her work incomplete.

Thus we see that men are wont to style natural phenomena perfect or imperfect rather from their own prejudices, than from true knowledge of what they pronounce upon. Now we showed in the Appendix to Part 1 that Nature does not work with an end in view. For the eternal and infinite Being, which we call God or Nature, acts by the same necessity as that whereby it exists. For we have shown, that by the same necessity of its nature, whereby it exists, it likewise works. The reason or cause why God or Nature exists, and the reason why he acts, are one and the same.

Therefore, as he does not exist for the sake of an end, so neither does he act for the sake of an end; of his existence and of his action there is neither origin nor end. Wherefore, a cause which is called final is nothing else but human desire, in so far as it is considered as the origin or cause of anything.

For example, when we say that to be inhabited is the final cause of this or that house, we mean nothing more than that a man, conceiving the conveniences of household life, had a desire to build a house. Wherefore, the being inhabited, in so far as it is regarded as a final cause, is nothing else but this particular desire, which is really the efficient cause; it is regarded as the primary cause, because men are generally ignorant of the causes of their desires They are, as I have often said already, conscious of their own actions and appetites, but ignorant of the causes whereby they are determined to any particular desire.

Therefore, the common saying that Nature sometimes falls short, or blunders, and produces things which are imperfect, I set down among the glosses treated of in the Appendix to Part 1.

Perfection and imperfection, then, are in reality merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from a comparison among one another of individuals of the same species; hence I said above, that by reality and perfection I mean the same thing. For we are wont to refer all the individual things in nature to one genus, which is called the highest genus, namely, to the category of Being, whereto absolutely all individuals in nature belong. Thus, in so far as we refer the individuals in nature to this category, and comparing them one with another, find that some possess more of being or reality than others, we, to this extent, say that some are more perfect than others. Again, in so far as we attribute to them anything implying negation--as term, end, infirmity, etc.,--we, to this extent, call them imperfect, because they do not affect our mind so much as the things which we call perfect, not because they have any intrinsic deficiency, or because Nature has blundered. For nothing lies within the scope of a thing's nature, save that which follows from the necessity of the nature of its efficient cause, and whatsoever follows from the necessity of the nature of its efficient cause necessarily comes to pass.

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another. Thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

Nevertheless, though this be so, the terms should still be retained. For, inasmuch as we desire to form an idea of man as a type of human nature which we may hold in view, it will be useful for us to retain the terms in question, in the sense I have indicated. In what follows, then, I shall mean by "good" that which we certainly know to be a means of approaching more nearly to the type of human nature, which we have set before ourselves; by " bad," that which we certainly know to be a hindrance to us in approaching the said type. Again, we shall say that men are more perfect, or more imperfect, in proportion as they approach more or less nearly to the said type.

For it must be specially remarked that, when I say that a man passes from a lesser to a greater perfection, or vice versa, I do not mean that he is changed from one essence or reality to another; for instance, a horse would be as completely destroyed by being changed into a man, as by being changed into an insect. What I mean is, that we conceive the thing's power of action, in so far as this is understood by its nature, to be increased or diminished.

Lastly, by perfection in general I shall, as I have said, mean reality in general --in other words, each thing's essence, in so far as it exists, and operates in a particular manner, and without paying any regard to its duration. For no given thing can be said to be more perfect, because it has passed a longer time in existence. The duration of things cannot be determined by their essence, for the essence of things involves no fixed and definite period of existence; but everything, whether it be more perfect or less perfect, will always be able to persist in existence with the same force wherewith it began to exist; wherefore, in this respect, all things are equal.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Betraying Spinoza - by Lois Isenman based on Rebecca Goldstein's Book

The 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza counseled that we strip ourselves of our attachment to our personal identity and instead use reason to take our place as citizens of the cosmos. Contemporary philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein betrays Spinoza in her book Betraying Spinoza by considering how the environment he grew up in influenced his philosophical views. She also betrays Spinoza by telling something about the unusual circumstances in which she first encountered him.

I will also betray Spinoza. To begin with, my knowledge of his work is secondhand. Yet it has affected me profoundly.

The loss of individual identity, of subjectivity, advocated by Spinoza leads to what Goldstein calls radical objectivity. This objectivity is different from what, rightly or wrongly, is today taken to be the objectivity of science. Spinoza’s worldview is framed by reason, yet there is a strong ecstatic, or blissful, impulse it. (In fact the word ecstasy originally meant to stand outside oneself.) Goldstein sometimes pegs his views as ecstatic rationalism.

Baruch Spinoza grew up in a community of Portuguese Jews who had escaped from the inquisition and moved to Amsterdam where they were free to practice Judaism. A brilliant yeshiva student, who also read widely, he came to reject the rigidity of traditional practice and doctrine, and especially the notion of the Jews as the chosen people. His ideas eventually led to his excommunication. Goldstein traces how the spiritualized rationalism of Talmudic debate (a way of “meshing with the Devine” by studying his laws) and the Kabbalistic, or Jewish mystical tradition (strongly influenced by the Greeks) joined together with the recent suffering of the Jews at the hand of the inquisition to influence his philosophy. She says:

I have long thought that the distinctly platonic tone of Spinoza's philosophy, which consist not so much in his actual picture of reality but in the ecstatic impulse that radiates it, and that sharply distinguishes his rationalism from both Descartes' and Leibniz’s came to him by way of the kabbalistic influences which were vividly alive in his Portuguese community. And Spinoza's system will offer us, as we shall see, its own solutions to the two mysteries that the most central to kabbalistic speculations; the ontological mystery of why the world exists at all, and the ethical mystery of suffering; why does suffering---and of such mind-numbing magnitude---exist in this world, if God is both all good and all-powerful? (p. 91)

Although Spinoza suggests the key to avoiding suffering is to enlarge one's frame of reference to include all of creation, his views are grounded in bodily experience and in subjectivity. He wrote, “The endeavour, wherewith everything endeavours to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question.” ( The Ethics , Part III. VII, quoted in Goldstein p. 161) We come into being in a body and are committed to the well-being of this body in a way we are committed to nothing else. We cannot help it.

This basic yet nonetheless curious fact is at the core of most experience. It is what Spinoza calls conatus. Our emotions, bestowed on us by evolution to assure that we survive, make it so. Antonio Damasio, an emotion researcher, in his book Looking for Spinoza, points out that Spinoza anticipated much of current thinking in cognitive science. Damasio, for example, has amassed a great deal of neuroanatomical and clinical evidence that places the body and its emotions at the very core of the experience of self. Goldstein writes:

One cares about oneself simply because one is one’s self. A person is committed, immediately and unthinkingly, to the survival and flourishing of a single thing in the universe that she is. There is no reason, external to one's own identity with that thing--- one self --- that one should be so single-mindedly, unswayingly committed to it. What explains this commitment is nothing over and above the bare fact that one is who one is. (p.160)

When we are happy, this body and the experience of self that come with it seems to expand. When we are unhappy it seems to contract into itself. Our biological mandate, which we cannot refuse, is to try to expand this self as much as possible. Yet our emotions are shaped, or conditioned, by our background and also triggered by external circumstances. They are thus doubly contingent on things we cannot control. Spinoza argues that the only way to assure success in our commitment to ourselves is to greatly enlarge our point of view. We suffer less to the extent that we can distance ourselves from our own emotions. Goldstein says:

That problematic and precious “I” is, for Spinoza a symptom of a passivity, the acceptance of the contingently given, that weakens our capacities, drains and us, impedes our driving force to persist in our own being, to flourish in the world. Paradoxically the only way to flourish in one’s being is to cease being only that being.(p. 69)

Our very essence, our conatus, will lead us, if only we will think it all through, to a vision of reality that, since it is the truth, is in our interest to attain, and will affect such a difference in our sense of ourselves that we will have trouble even returning to the pre-philosophical attachment to ourselves.(p.162)

I had an illuminating experience while reading Goldstein’s book. Just as I was getting ready to go to the airport for my flight home from a trip, I checked my email and received some unanticipated bad news. A deeply unpleasant incident occurred on the way to the airport as well, in part because I was completely occupied processing my thoughts and feelings.

I arrived at the airport in a state of psychic shock. After stewing in my feelings for a while more, I felt drawn to reading Goldstein’s book; I read straight through to Boston. When I arrived home, my emotional pain had not gone away: it was a deep ache in my chest. Yet I was now able to accept these unpleasant events and the internal discomfort they caused without judgment. This seemed to free my mind from its tendency to process seemingly endlessly deeply upsetting events.

Spinoza’s pragmatic if challenging solution to the question of human suffering meets another strand of his philosophy. His basic assumption is one of holism. He begins The Ethics with the following definition,“By that which is self-caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent." (The Ethics, Part I, I, in Goldstein p.71) The universe causes itself. It is therefore deterministic, even if we with limited minds can not understand it. The universe defines logic, or as Goldstein says, it is logic self-aware.

But this reality is not the material world generally perceived by the senses. Sense experience is the lowest step on Spinoza’s hieracrchy of cognition; he calls it imagination. Rather reality is the web of rational necessary connections that underlie the cosmos. By forsaking personal identity, and using our reason, we can partake of this web of necessary connections of which we are, at least in our essence, inherently a part. Though this logic is something we can only fully experience with intuition, our reason prepares us and guides us to this knowledge of God with Nature---deus sive natura.

I had another experience that helped illuminate the power of Spinoza’s work. One morning after spending about an hour with my notes from Goldstein's book in preparation for writing this article, I went outside to go to my car. The shimmering light and my hour with Spinoza seemingly came together to allow me a taste of something extraordinary, which might have some relationship to the ecstacy associated with nature for Spinoza. This feeling came neither from the sensory details themselves, nor how they fit together. Rather it came from something intangible behind all this. Whatever it was seemed dazzlingly intelligent (though whether it was was rational, and thus conceptual, or non-conceptual, I do not know). In any case, the world appeared both material and immaterial, and I found myself soaring to the rhythm of the pulse between the two.

For the next several hours, whenever I turned from my work I could reconnect to this ecstatic feeling. (Even now when I extend my field of vision to its limits, I can recapture a faint echo of the feeling.) But later in the afternoon I came down hard.

A friend’s manipulation about something unimportant and my acquiescence in order to minimize the situation and avoid a showdown left me internally fuming. My effort to talk myself down and to distract worked only to an extent. It did not really get inside to the source of my intense reaction, and I could not completely put this reaction aside. Alas, even though I had tried not to betray Spinoza and myself, I ended up betraying us both.

I plan to read Spinoza’s books, even though their sparseness and rigor makes them daunting. I would like to get a more of a feeling for this web of necessary connections Spinoza calls reason and also how reason and intuition come together for him. Even more importantly, I hope his methodology---his bare bones rationality---in conjunction with his message, will help me become more immune to the seductive and tenacious pull of negative emotions (even when it is round about).

Although I tend not to think this way, I am aware that there may be a bonus. Actually my preference is for super-grounded experiences of altered consciousness rather than ecstatic ones. But hey, if it ever gets to be a real issue, maybe I can work something out.

Rebecca Goldstein, Betryaing Spinoza: The Renegade Jew who Gave Us Modernity (New York: Schocken Books, 2006).

Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (New York: Harcourt, 2003).

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Religion and Science - by Albert Einstein

The following article by Albert Einstein appeared in the New York Times Magazine on November 9, 1930 pp 1-4. It has been reprinted in Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, Inc. 1954, pp 36 - 40. It also appears in Einstein's book The World as I See It, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949, pp. 24 - 28.

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present themselves to us. Now what are the feelings and needs that have led men to religious thought and belief in the widest sense of the words? A little consideration will suffice to show us that the most varying emotions preside over the birth of religious thought and experience. With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions - fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death. Since at this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend. Thus one tries to secure the favor of these beings by carrying out actions and offering sacrifices which, according to the tradition handed down from generation to generation, propitiate them or make them well disposed toward a mortal. In this sense I am speaking of a religion of fear. This, though not created, is in an important degree stabilized by the formation of a special priestly caste which sets itself up as a mediator between the people and the beings they fear, and erects a hegemony on this basis. In many cases a leader or ruler or a privileged class whose position rests on other factors combines priestly functions with its secular authority in order to make the latter more secure; or the political rulers and the priestly caste make common cause in their own interests.

The social impulses are another source of the crystallization of religion. Fathers and mothers and the leaders of larger human communities are mortal and fallible. The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts men to form the social or moral conception of God. This is the God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who, according to the limits of the believer's outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even or life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead. This is the social or moral conception of God.

The Jewish scriptures admirably illustrate the development from the religion of fear to moral religion, a development continued in the New Testament. The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples of the Orient, are primarily moral religions. The development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step in peoples' lives. And yet, that primitive religions are based entirely on fear and the religions of civilized peoples purely on morality is a prejudice against which we must be on our guard. The truth is that all religions are a varying blend of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of social life the religion of morality predominates.

Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

We thus arrive at a conception of the relation of science to religion very different from the usual one. When one views the matter historically, one is inclined to look upon science and religion as irreconcilable antagonists, and for a very obvious reason. The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events - provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man's actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God's eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.

It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees.On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics! Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.

No Essential Difference - by Paul Tallant

Paul Tallant wrote me (Lois) after reading my piece that he had some thoughts about science and religion. I encouraged him to put them in writing and submit them as a comment. The result was so comprehensive and moving to me and also so parallel to what I had written in certain ways --- I decided that it fit best right afterwards. Paul's views are not exactly the same as mine, but they come close in many areas.

No Essential Difference by Paul Tallant

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Lois Isenman for her encouragement to write this note and for her gentle and thought-provoking comments and queries as I wrote it.

I was waiting in the doctor’s office and spied a copy of the 17 July 2006 Canadian issue of Time. The cover with a cowboy hat sporting a Presidential Seal and boots protruding beneath caught my attention initially, but my eyes rapidly shifted to one of the cover’s sub-captions; “Exclusive Einstein Letters.” I started reading Walter Isaacsons’s feature “The Intimate Life of A. Einstein,” however my name was called before I finished (a seemingly infrequent event in the patient-waiting rooms of Canadian medicine). After my appointment, the receptionist told me I could borrow the issue. I returned home with it and placed it on my night-time reading table. At bedtime, after reading Isaacson, I discovered David Van Biema’s article “Reconciling God and Science” in the “Religion” section of same issue of Time. Naturally I began reading Van Biema. I did not turn out the light until I had read his entire account of Francis Collins’s personal encounters with God and how Collins reconciles his work in science with his beliefs in the Divine---taken from Collin’s new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Serendipitously, Lois Isenman’s post, a doctor’s appointment, and a five-months old copy of Time provided me an opportunity to comment on a subject that, in various incarnations, has held my attention for years. I thank Lois for the opportunity to describe briefly the latest edition of my thoughts regarding God and science.

I believe in God. I believe in evolution. And I believe that those two beliefs are intrinsically harmonious. But this harmony is infrequently heard amid the crescendo of a commonly perceived dissonance between God and science. It is the perceived dissonance that likely led Van Biema to title his piece “Reconciling ---” and similarly for Lois to title her’s “--- Bridging –“

I grew up with beliefs far more conservative than those of Collins. Early-on I believed in a “young” Earth, and essentially accepted the Genesis story as an account of Divine science. But Collins does not take that tack and is quite clear in his view about the Genesis account. He says “I don’t think God intended Genesis to teach science.” I now agree with Collins.

Collins’s approach to spirituality was different than mine. Collins was hiking in the Pacific Cascades and encountered a frozen waterfall with the shape of three distinct streams. From those frozen forms Collins recognized the Trinity and surrendered to Jesus Christ. My hike was figurative. It seemed that on a thickly-clouded night I was deep in the Barrens of the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland Canada, seeking to return to the only road that led back home to Witless Bay, a small ex-fishing community near St. John’s. I was lost. But out of the darkness appeared a woman who was studying to be a rabbi. She handed me a copy of Minyan, Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity by Rabbi M. Shapiro and said “read it.” I did.

Rabbi Shapiro’s account of the foundation of spirituality is strongly credible to me because he is a Jewish Rabbi who has moved spiritually beyond both his Orthodox upbringing and the Reform rabbinical training he received. In “Minyan –“ Shapiro gives a moving account of his experience as a rabbinic student. Shapiro says:

“I delivered a sermon on the necessary unity of God, woman, man and nature. Immediately after the service I was called into the office of the chairman of the philosophy department for a scholarly reprimand.”

“Referring to my position that God and creation are one, the chairman said; ‘You sir are a megalomaniac.’”

“”With all due respect, Rabbi,’ I said, you are wrong. If I understand the term correctly, a megalomaniac thinks he is God. I, on the other hand, know I am God.’”

“What I meant to convey and doubt very much that I did, was my deep conviction that God is not something or someone living somewhere in or out of time and space. To me God is the One who manifests as all things in time an space. God is not something you pray to, but rather the greater reality to which you awake.” (Italics mine.)

Rabbi Shapiro’s approach to spirituality is in a sense similar to Collins avowing a belief in God and concurrently possessing acknowledged stature in molecular genetics. Shapiro moved beyond the traditions of his cloth and Collins embraced a spiritual belief not common among his scientific peers. I take the essence of Shapiro’s thesis to be that God dwells within each of us, is indescribable, is Love, and is accessible through the exercise of our own free will.

The lady with the book provided the way for me to figuratively return to the road and civilization. I believe in God and further believe that God dwells within me, and within every human being. I spent years wondering about the nature of God, feeling almost a compulsion to discover the nature of God. Lois comments about the deeper meaning of the Jewish concept of God being indescribable and un-nameable. That now is my view of God, perhaps not in the strict Jewish sense, but I recognize that neither I nor any other human can possibly define God, other than to deny God’s existence – and that is a thread-bare definition. I am now content to believe that as part of God being God, the Divine dwells within each of us. And I leave the huge remainder to God alone.

Francis Collins, when viewing the frozen waterfall, surrendered to Jesus Christ. After absorbing more of Minyan -- and the works of other thoughtful writers (for example see Williamson , Welwood , Walsch) I surrendered to God Within, to Love Within. In the broad theme of the Divine, I believe there is no essential difference between Collins’s experience and mine (and that of zillions of other spiritually inclined people)--- what difference there is lies in human viewpoints. I believe further that there exists a perspective that presents these seemingly different views of God as a single Wholeness.

The notion of “no essential difference” applies also to my belief about a “gap” between science and religion, or the need to “reconcile” God and science. Within the broad theme of the Divine, I believe that there is no difference, no gap, and no need for reconciliation. I believe that nature is an explicit revelation of God and that science is the tool available to us humans to learn of the “testable” part of the Divine.

Lois quotes Richard Dawkins as saying, "I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine…” She also quotes Annie Dillard as saying, “I don't know beans about God.” Van Biema describes an exchange between Collins and a Ph.D. candidate at a meeting of Harvey Fellows in Alexandria Virginia. The student asked Collins if he felt that evolution applied to everything else but humans. Collins responded that such a position would get you into real trouble. Collins also said “the human genome contains nonfunctional elements in the precise spot where they can be found on chromosomes of lower animals.” Then Collins asked a question and provided his own answer. “If God was creating humans afresh, why would He insert a pseudo-gene that has lost its ability to do anything in the same place that it appears in a chimp? “ Collins continued “Barring evolution, you are forced to the conclusion that God was trying to mislead us and test our faith and I have trouble with that kind of conjecture.”

Physicists have long recognized the extreme sensitivity of the nature of our Universe to the value of fundamental physical constants. From the Big Bang on, very slight changes in one or more of these constants would have resulted in a dramatically different Universe than what we observe today. And as Lois describes, argument and controversy in the context of God swirls about the origin of the value of these constants.

In graduate school one of the most important things I learned about representing physical phenomena is to use a coordinate system that is intrinsically appropriate to the process itself. For example, if a process inherently has spherical geometry, don’t describe it or cast it in Cartesian coordinates; you’ll only create a symbolic mess for yourself. On a more abstract level, a coordinate system is simply a formality through which details of phenomena can be visualized. It is a perspective through which to view the behavior of a process or system.

Personally, I take the approach of choosing the appropriate “coordinate system”, the appropriate perspective to solving the issue of God and science. If you do not believe in God, then you have the “trivial” solution; there is only science and no need to look further. But if with me you admit the existence of God, then I believe we require a figurative “coordinate system,” a yet undiscovered and undefined perspective, a point-of-view, that will allow the “problem” of God and science to be resolved with efficacy and integrity.
This perspective must deal with both the spiritual and the physical. The spiritual requires faith, the physical intrinsically does not; it is “testable.” With Annie Dillard, I don’t know “beans about God.” But I believe that God exists and I believe with Rabbi Shapiro that the Divine dwells within me and within each of us humans. I further believe with Collins that DNA is a “language of God,” that evolution exists and that it has been and continues to be active in our world. I also believe with Richard Dawkins that “—there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine –.” I further believe that a perspective exists that contains an elegant and non-trivial solution to the issue of God and science. And finally, when viewed via this perspective, I believe we will discover that the solution contains no essential difference between God and science.