Adam over at Knowledge Ecology has posted about the need for a pluralistic ontology in thinking the differences between nature and culture. I’ve copied my response to him below:
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Another stimulating post, Adam. I love the thinkers you are bringing into conversation. I have not yet read Carolan’s essay, but I have a few comments to share about your summary.

You write that “physical environments can exist without social environments, but not the reverse.” What do you mean, exactly, by “physical” in this context? I remain convinced that Whitehead’s organic realism is the most fruitful approach to take if we are trying to bring forth a cosmology without undue ontological divisions between human beings and every other kind of being, whether they be dolphin beings, flamingo beings, sequoia beings, or helium and hydrogen beings. To say that physical environments precede social environments suggests that molecules, atoms, protons, etc., relate to one another in fundamentally non-living, non-semiotic ways; which is to say, they hardly relate at all, they simply crash into and pull at one another blindly. If we are going to call these physical “environments,” then we are already implying that physical beings “live” in relation to one another, that they are each autonomous boundary generating systems that live amongst other such systems within larger communities of constitutive relations. What are stars but collectives of hydrogen and helium atoms whose gravitational, electronic, and magnetic means of semiosis bring them into emergent social relations, relations so tightly woven that, at least from our earthly perspective, these collectives become autonomous beings in their own right? Are there really physical environments that aren’t always already social? Perhaps you could speak of isolated quarks as asocial beings; but they are almost always artificially separated in human laboratories, and all indications are that even these sub-atomic forms of self-organization are constituted by social relations between even smaller beings. I am pretty sure you agree, it is ecosystems all the way down, which is why I was surprised to read this statement.

Of course, we don’t want to just collapse nature into culture, or physics into society. But as long we realize that “culture” and “society” have never been purely human endeavors, I think a panexperiential or pansemiotic approach is quite fruitful. DNA is, after all, a kind of language. I don’t think genes operate on an entirely different ontological plane then human symbolism and communication. They are both processes that obey the same semiotic logic, and though the latter may be associated with greater degrees of reflexivity and consciousness, the former is the ground and condition of the latter: if my cells stopped communicating with each other, I would very quickly lose the capacity to speak with you.

What I would want to suggest is that we need a stratified or layered ontology to distinguish the multiplicity of umwelts that make up the universe. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there are ultimately multiple ontologies, since this seems to me to be only another form of reductionism (just a reduction to the many, instead of to the one). There are many distinct umwelts, or worlds brought forth through differing modes of sensory relation. But hey all exist in and as the same encompassing sphere of Being as part of the same universe (at least unless we are going to say that there are some beings we will never, ever, even in principle, come into relation with–which is quite possible, but in that case, even to speak of them is already to assume some relation, thereby bringing them into our sphere). So we could say there are as many worlds, niches, or umwelts as there are kinds of organism, but that each overlaps to varying degrees within a single cosmos. Perhaps, instead of talking about “nature” as some monolithic category, we could speak of “Earth,” which is undeniably the common ground of all the middle-sized creatures threatened by technoindustrial capitalism. Earth is the singular body that houses multiple ecologies.

In terms of an OOO, I think this is where human beings start to become unique, since only we seem capable of thinking about how ‘real’ objects condition ‘sensory’ objects. In other words, only we worry about ontology. The ecological crisis is deeply related to our failed ontology, but I think it still makes sense to seek out a common ground of being with all lifeforms, since it is precisely our human inability to live in relation to other worldlings that has generated a mass extinction. I don’t think a sort of “live and let live” respect for irreducible difference is realistic anymore, we are too enmeshed with the rest of the Earth community for such enlightened ignorance to work. Beings may always withdraw from one another, but in this very quality of mutual mysteriousness, we have something in common.

ConferenceReport (or Fred in the meat-world) likes to take his visuoaudiences on a walk through metaphors of mind. In this video, he draws on the work of the cognitive scientists George LakoffThomas NagelAntonio Damasio, Thomas Metzinger, and William James, among others.

I’m most interested in what Fred has to say about the relationship between consciousness and the physical body. He provides helpful summations of the ideas of the neuroscientist Damasio (consciousness is “the feeling of what happens”), the philosopher Nagel (consciousness is “what it is,–or is like,–to be a thing”), and the neuroethicist Metzinger (consciousness is “nothing but a self-model, or phenomenal self”). In the end, it seems that Fred is most in agreement with Metzinger, since his approach best validates the scientific materialism each axiomatically assumes. Consciousness, for Fred, is rooted in and entirely explainable through a “carrier frequency of somatic-physiological operations…produced by the constant ticking away of our bodies.” But, he adds, this physiological being is not just a moving body, it is also an emoting somebody.

He then opens up an inquiry into William James’ phenomenology of emotion, describing it as an embodied approach to self-inquiry and the investigation of our own moods that recognized the goings on of physiology as constitutive of these same moods. I would want to flesh out what a Jamesian approach to consciousness might look like a bit more, since I think his paradoxically spiritual/psychological interests and pragmatic/realist orientation place his philosophy of consciousness in stark contrast to Metzinger’s reductionistic nihilism. In an interview with Susan Blackmore in Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford, 2006), she asks Metzinger what the scientific study of consciousness has done to his everyday life. He begins his response by talking about the fragility of our identities and the dignity they carry, since a clot in our cerebral tissue could dissolve them at any moment). His explanation for consciousness in terms of a neural illusion is self-classified as a “hard theoretical” issue, understood only by affluent secular Western scientists and philosophers; “hard” issues (like facing up to the implications of modern genetics and neuroscience–and, Metzinger adds, to the transformative effect of psychedelic technologies) are contrasted with”soft” issues, which those initiated into the “scientific image of man” only have to continue to bother themselves with because the “undeveloped world,” which makes up the vast majority of Earth’s population, continues to believe in a “metaphysical image of man.” I think there are better ways of thinking about the diversity of social imaginaries among human beings alive today than dividing them into “Scientific materialism” v. “anything else.” James’ A Pluralistic Universe might be a good place to start.

Metzinger goes on to offer us the sobering news of scientific materialism:

There is a new image of man emerging out of genetics and neuroscience, one which will basically contradict all other images of man that we have had in the Western tradition. It is strictly unmetaphysical; it is absolutely incompatible with the Christian image of man; and it may force us to confront our mortality in a much more direct way than we have ever before in our history. It may close the door on certain hopes people have had, not only scientists and philosophers but all of us, such as that maybe somehow consciousness could exist without the brain after death. People will still want to believe something like that. But just as people will actually still think that the sun revolves around the earth — people whom you basically laugh at and don’t take seriously any more. So there’s a reductive anthropology that may come to us, and it may come faster than we are prepared for it; it may come as an emotionally sobering experience to many people particularly in developing countries, who make up 80% of human beings, and still have a metaphysical image of man, haven’t ever heard anything about neuroscience, don’t want to hear anything about neural correlates of consciousness, want to keep on living in their metaphysical world-view as they have for centuries.

I actually don’t think the coming trauma of materialism is in any way incompatible with Christianity, at least not the images at work within the Christian unconscious. As I see it, the confrontation with death–and the challenge to love (or to be ethical) despite having become aware of the mortality of the physical body and the illusory (or sinful) nature of the ego–is the very heart of the Christian imaginary. The crucifixion comes before the resurrection, since, as the story goes, one must first die in the flesh in order to be born again in spirit. Scientific materialism has more in common with the the historical evolution of Christian consciousness than it often lets on (I explored this connection in a section of this essay called the “logic of extinction”).

Getting back to Fred’s video, he ends by suggesting that consciousness, or the feeling of self, is best understood, not as belonging to an immortal soul irreducible to the components of the visible universe, but as a metaphor, or “way of speaking that differentiates our internal state” from the external physical world that is conditioning it. “Consciousness,” he says, is rooted in a more fundamental process of biological differentiation that takes place “on the surface of our skin.” It is the result of a complex network of neuronal sensorimotor loops whose inputs are our bodily senses. This sort of an account of consciousness may be embodied, but it lacks a sense of world-embeddedness. Consciousness is not only physiologically realized, it is sociologically constructed and cosmically extended. It cannot be simply located anywhere, but must, finally, be rooted in the soul of the world. I feel with my skin, but my skin is full of pores! The world itself bleeds into me when I feel it, mixing with my felt sense of being.

Consciousness is no mere metaphorical division in Being, though it may only be articulable by talking animals: consciousness is the principle at work in every self-differentiating being in possession (or possessed by) the Word. A conscious being is a micro-creator, or microcosm, who recapitulates in finite form the Mind and Power of a transcendent Being, incarnating the Infinite in the space and time of living and dying.

Alan Watts can always say it better:

Here are the first few paragraphs of a lecture by Steiner (given in Dornach, 18th December 1921) on the relationship between alphabetic technologies and the evolution of Greek and Roman consciousness:

For some time we have been occupied with gaining a more accurate knowledge of Man’s relation to the universe, and today we would like to supplement our past studies. If we consider how Man lives in the present period of his evolution — taking this period so widely that it encompasses not only what is historical but also in part the pre-historical — we must conclude that speech is a preeminent characteristic at this moment of the cosmic evolution of mankind. It is speech that elevates Man above the other kingdoms of nature.

In the lectures last week, I mentioned that in the course of mankind’s evolution, language, speech as a whole, has also undergone a development. I alluded to how, in very ancient times, speech was something that Man formed out of himself as his most primal ability; how, with the help of his organs of speech he was able to manifest the divine spiritual forces living within him. I also referred to how, in the transition from the Greek culture to the Roman-Latin culture, that is to say in the fourth Post-Atlantean period, the single sounds in language lose their names and, as in contemporary usage, merely have value as sounds. In Greek culture we still have a name for the first letter of the alphabet but in Latin it is just ‘A’. In passing from the Greek to the Latin culture something living in speech, something eminently concrete changes into abstraction. It might be said: as long as Man called the first letter of the alphabet ‘Alpha’, he experienced a certain amount of inspiration in it, but the moment he called it just ‘A’, the letters conformed to outer convention, to the prosaic aspects of life, replacing inspiration and inner experience. This constituted the actual transition from everything belonging to Greece to what is Roman-Latin — men of culture became estranged from the spiritual world of poetry and entered into the prose of life.

The people of Rome were a sober, prosaic race, a race of jurists, who brought prose and jurisprudence into the culture of later years. What lived in the people of Greece developed within mankind more or less like a cultural dream which men approach through their own revelations when they have inner experiences and wish to give expression to them. It might be said that all poetry has in it something which makes it appear to Europeans as a daughter of Greece, whereas all jurisprudence, all outer compartmentalization, all the prose of life, suggest descent from the Roman-Latin people.

I have previously called your attention to how a real understanding of the Alpha — Aleph in Hebrew — leads us to recognize in it the desire to express Man in a symbol. If one seeks the nearest modern words to convey the meaning of Alpha, these would be: ‘The one who experiences his own breathing’. In this name we have a direct reference to the Old Testament words: ‘And God formed Man … and breathed into nostrils the breath of life’. What at that time was done with the breath, to make Man a Man of Earth, the being who had his Manhood imprinted on him by becoming the experiencer, the feeler of his own breathing, by receiving into himself consciousness of his breathing, is meant to be expressed in the first letter of the alphabet.

And the name ‘Beta’ considered with an open mind, turning here to the Hebrew equivalent, represents something of the nature of a wrapping, a covering, a house. Thus, if we were to put our experience on uttering ‘Alpha, Beta,’ into modern language we could say: ‘Man in his house’. And we could go through the whole alphabet in this way, giving expression to a concept, a meaning, a truth about Man simply by saying the names of the letters of the alphabet one after another. A comprehensive sentence would be uttered giving expression to the Mystery of Man. This sentence would begin by our being shown Man in his building, in his temple. The following parts of the sentence would go on to express how Man conducts himself in his temple and how he relates to the cosmos. In short, what would be expressed by speaking the names of the alphabet consecutively, would not be the abstraction we have today when we say ABC, without any accompanying thoughts, but it would be the expression of the Mystery of Man and of how his roots are in the universe.

When today, in various societies ‘the lost archetypal word’ is talked about, there is no recognition that it is actually contained in the sentence that comprises the names of the alphabet. Thus we can look back on a time in the evolution of humanity when Man, in repeating his alphabet, did not express what was related to external events, external needs, but what the divine spiritual mystery of his being brought to expression through his larynx and his speech organs.

It might be said that what belongs to the alphabet was applied later to external objects, and forgotten was all that can be revealed to Man through his speech about the mystery of his soul and spirit. Man’s original word of truth, his word of wisdom, was lost. Speech was poured out over the matter-of-factness of life. In speaking today, Man is no longer conscious that the original primordial sentence has been forgotten; the sentence through which the divine revealed its own being to him. He is no longer aware that the single words, the single sentences uttered today, represent the mere shreds of that primordial sentence.

The poet, by avoiding the prose element in speech, and going back to the inner experience, the inner feeling, the inner formation of speech, attempts to return to its inspired archetypal element. One could perhaps say that every true poem, the humblest as well as the greatest, is an attempt to return to the word that has been lost, to retrace the steps from a life arranged in accordance with utility to times when cosmic being still revealed itself in the inner organism of speech.

Today we distinguish the consonant from the vowel element in speech. I have spoken of how it would appear to Man if he were to dive beneath the threshold of his consciousness. In ordinary consciousness memories are reflected upwards or, in other words, thoughts are reflections of what is experienced between birth and death. Normally we do not penetrate Man’s actual being beyond this recollection, this thought left behind in memory. From another point of view I have indicated how, beneath the threshold of consciousness, there lives what may be called a universal tragedy of mankind. This can also be described in the following way: When Man wakes up in the morning and his ego and astral body dive down into his etheric body and his physical body, he does not perceive these bodies from within outwards, what he perceives is something quite different.

Read the rest.

Meaning is infinite because language is indefinitely recursive, because “world” is a word, such that “word” has no world to refer to. Words refer only to themselves, except Yours, your Name, who is the Word but mustn’t know it. “Reality” is a word referring to a set of alphanumeric-audiovisual symbols inherited from an ancient alchemical cult. Sense is infinite because even as we reach out and touch the world, it continues to recede away from us, to withdraw from our ears and eyes into darkness behind a veil beyond the silence of all horizons. The sensory world is sublime, infinite. “Nature” is our differentiated hyperbody, our shared space of bioeconomic (re)production and cosmopolitical (re)action.

9macrina9:

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (b. 29 May 1874 – d....
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“The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame. Whether we praise these things as natural to man or abuse them as artificial in nature, they remain in the same sense unique.” –

G. K. Chesterton, p. 168, “The Everlasting Man,” in The Collected Works (1986)

Michael over at Archive Fire recently linked to a published essay by a friend and former colleague at CIISAnnick Hedlund-de Witt. Annick researches the way changing world-views in America and Europe stand to influence–whether positively, negatively, or not at all–the push for a more sustainable approach to development around the world. She focuses specifically on spiritual imaginaries (my term) that have been dubbed “New Age” in an attempt to understand, from a sociological and developmental perspective, what impact they may have in our burgeoning planetary civilization’s attempt to respond to the various social and ecological (or perhaps socioecological and cosmopolitical) crises of our time. Her essay, linked above and here, is very thorough. I’m unabashedly sympathetic and supportive of her work.

I have argued extensively (here and here) that adequately responding to the socioecological crises of our time is not possible without spiritual transformation. When it comes to “spiritual matters,” I tend to think most easily along the lines articulated by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in The Universe Story (1994). Brian, a cosmologist, has called for the “re-invention of the human,” while his mentor, Berry, a religious scholar and geologian, invoked the alchemical mystery of metamorphosis by referring to our civilization’s present challenge as the Great Work.

But what on earth does “spirituality” even mean?  I tend to distance myself from the so-called New Age movement, since its popular manifestations seem to suggest that all the world needs now is “positive energy.” Usually this energy is touted as a deeply mystical “secret,” but nonetheless comes conveniently package and sold in DVD-sized boxes, each one inspected by Oprah (there is a pink “O” sticker on the cover to prove it). I think this sort of “spirituality” fits too easily into the same old capitalist mold all good “Young Hegelian” thinkers want to break free of.

Slavoj Žižek, who contrasts Young (to which he could be said to belong) with Old, or conservative Hegelians (think Ken Wilber) in his recent book Living in the End Times (2010), also has a number of interesting things to say about New Age eco-apocalypticism. On the one hand, he points out that Daniel Pinchbeck’s vision of a coming “deep spiritual shift”  (as recorded in his book on 2012) is structurally identical to a kind of communism, at least if “we scratch away its spiritualist coating” (Žižek, p. 350).

If we are graduating from nation-states to a noospheric state, we may find ourselves exploring the kind of nonhierarchical social organization–a ‘synchronic order’ based on trust and telepathy–that the Hopi and other aboriginal groups have used for millennia. If a global civilization can self-organize from our current chaos, it will be founded on cooperation rather than winner-takes-all competition, sufficiency rather than surfeit, communal solidarity rather than individual elitism, reasserting the sacred nature of all earthly life (Pinchbeck, p. 213).

On the other hand, Žižek also notes that the New Age imaginary is an all-to-easy, feel-good temptation that, especially in the context of the ecological crisis, neglects “the basic lesson of Darwinism: the utter contingency of nature” (p. 350). Earth is not a pristine and perfectly balanced harmony of organisms and environments (as imaginaries like Deep Ecology often suggest); it is a dynamically evolving, far-from-equilibrium system of complex relationships that scientific research is only beginning to unravel. When trying to comprehend the nature of our relationship to the natural world, Žižek suggests that we “[bear] in mind that ‘nature’ is a contingent multi-faceted mechanism in which catastrophes can lead to unexpectedly positive results” (p. 351). The oxygen crisis comes to mind as perhaps the best example, with the astroid collision that helped end the dinosaurs’ reign close behind.

Returning to the potential upside of New Age spirituality, Žižek goes on to question whether the typical “anemic-skeptical liberal stance” as regards spiritual matters is enough to “revitalize our post-political desiccation of democracy” (p. 352). Could it be that some sort of “return of the religious” is necessary to inject passion back into Leftist politics?

Žižek, right on cue, dialecticizes the dichotomy between secularism and religiosity :

…as Hegel already showed apropos the dialectic of Enlightenment and faith in his Phenomenology of Spirit, such counter-posing of formal Enlightenment values to fundamental-substantial beliefs is false, amounting to an untenable ideologico-existential position. What we should do, by contrast, is fully assume the identity of the two opposed moments–which is precisely what an apocalyptic ‘Christian materialism’ does do, in bringing together both the rejection of a divine Otherness and the element of unconditional commitment (p. 353).

What exactly Žižek means by a “Christian materialism” is not clear to me as of yet, but I think my work toward developing a “logic of incarnation” could also be described in this way.

What might it mean to call the human a “spiritual animal”? In light of some of my recent blogs on death, perhaps the human is spiritual because, unlike most other organisms, it is not simply “living”; rather, due to its knowledge of death, it also participates consciously in Life itself. We are spiritual precisely because, at least in the non-ordinary circumstances when we are made to pay attention to it, our sense of being alive–of livingseems to hover somewhere between life and death. Our present consciousness at first appears limited by the horizon of the sensory world; but just as we cognize this limit, we come immediately to recognize our spiritual participation in bringing it forth. As soon as we grasp our own bodily mortality, consciousness instinctually protests by either repressing the full trauma of the fact or transforming itself through a religious act (i.e., faith) into something spiritually immortal.

Adam over at Knowledge Ecology posted some thoughts in response to my last blog on the concept of Life. I suggested that one way of distinguishing the human from other kinds of being is that we can contemplate abstractions like life-in-itself, and therefore also, death-in-itself.

Adam writes the following:

I think this is worth discussing further, and while I think Matt is on the right track here, I also want to ask: what does it mean that elephants perform burial rituals for both other elephants and other species such as the rhinoceros (as Bekoff says is the case)? Is there some contemplation of the meaning of “life itself” and its inevitable end result in death? It seems that elephants in this case are contemplating not just their own life cycles, but also acknowledging that such cycles are a property for living beings in general, which would in a way hint that they are contemplating the meaning of life not just “for them.” Of course, I am speculating, but I think its worth thinking about. Elephants partaking in the aporia of the life/death mystery? Thats the kind of question I’m interested in. More to come, Im sure.

Adam is right, Homo sapiens are not the only mammals who have some inkling of their own mortality. Elephants mourn dead members of their group, and apparently, other species as well (I’d like to know a bit more about that!).

Then there are chimpanzees:

I think I’d still argue that, while other animals can mourn their dead, they are still mourning particular beings, rather than contemplating life-in-itself. After all, even human scientists only recently came to grasp the significance of extinction, the death of an entire species. But then again, this raises an interesting line of inquiry… there is nothing inherent to our biological constitution that makes us aware of death, since children only gradually come to understand mortality, often with great emotional difficulty. And if we take Socrates seriously, even fully enculturated adults are in the dark in regards to contemplating the true nature of death. Perhaps it would be more helpful, if also a bit more mystical, to conceive of the “Human” or “Anthropos” as a transbiological, archetypal potential not monopolized by the Homo genus, but available to a wide variety of complex earthlings, particularly mammals? To be human, then, would mean to be capable of contemplating the meaning of death; but “Human” as an ideal that a number of biological species, including elephants and chimps, participate in to varying degrees.

There is a lot more to be explored and unpacked here. Plenty of occultists (especially Rudolf Steiner) have suggested that there is an intimate link between thinking and dying, and that somehow consciousness is always already an awareness of spirit, or that which is beyond this body. There is also a rich tradition of Hermetic speculation about the Anthropos and its evolutionary relation to the human animal and the rest of the earth community.

I’ll close this admitedly aborted inquiry for now with an few words of Georges Bataille’s cited by Thacker in After Life:

And the spirit is so closely linked to the body that the latter never ceases to be haunted by the former, not even at the limit, the point where spirit is never more present than when death reduces it to the status of a thing… In this sense, the corpse is the most perfect affirmation of the spirit. It is even the essence of the spirit to reveal the definitive powerlessness of death, in the same way that the cry of that corpse is the supreme affirmation of life. (Theory of Religion, p. 54).

I’ve just finished Eugene Thacker‘s After Life, wherein he surveys the positions of key pre-modern thinkers, including Aristotle, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Eriugena, Duns Scotus, Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa. Despite the often illuminating nature of their thoughts, it seems that none of these men were able to articulate a workable account of life-in-itself, at least not one that could be grasped absent some initiatory encounter with the mystical. The first 4 chapters were a difficult but rewarding read, as Thacker leads the reader through the cognitive darkness of paradox and contradiction inherent to any attempt to think the Absolute as Life. In chapter 5 (“The Logic of Life”), things start to get really interesting…

Whether utilizing a theological or philosophical mode of reflection, it seems that all the thinkers Thacker surveys (with the possible exception of Deleuze’s Spinoza) were bound by a correlational logic: they attempted to think an ontology of life relative to the human being. Overcoming this correlation is easier said than done, since “Life,” as such, can only be approached by a living being capable of, or perhaps possessed by, self-conscious thinking. In other words, it would appear that the concept of Life is only meaningful given that there exists a rational creature capable of abstracting it from all the many given instances of individual living creatures, including me myself. Distinguishing the human animal from other forms of life is controversial, both philosophically and politically, but perhaps it is precisely in thinking life-in-itself, or at least in thinking the impossibility of such a thought, that the human distinguishes itself from other beings. It is not that the life of a dog is not, in some sense, meaningful for the dog; but can the dog pre-discursively form anything like the proposition “what is the meaning of life?” Not “what is the meaning of life for me,” mind you, but the meaning of life in general. The contemplation of the aporia of life-in-itself seems to be a specifically human predicament.

“The concept of life,” writes Thacker, “–and whether such a concept is possible–places philosophy in a hovering, wandering space between an ontotheology and an ontobiology” (p. 241).

The challenge, as Thacker lays it out, is to articulate a conception of Life that is neither reductively theological or biological. Philosophy is that restless wanderer charged with the task of navigating between these two extremes.

“The history of Western philosophy,” continues Thacker, “is this ongoing dilemma concerning the very possibility of ‘living thought'” (p. 242).

What is the relationship between life, on the one hand, and thought, on the other? The intentional structure of consciousness is such that thought always has an object; might not life-in-itself be the Object of all objects, that which, being “ambivalently positioned between self and world,” constitutes the very possibility of a “continuum [connecting] the ‘out there’ to the ‘in here'” (p. 247)? Life would then be, paradoxically, both the condition of the possibility of thought and the end toward which thinking strives.

Thacker’s book has reminded me of Evan Thompson‘s thesis, presented in Mind in Life, that the self-organizing dynamics at work in living beings are not just conceptually analogous, but structurally continuous with the self-conscious dynamics of mind. What remains unexplored is what this continuity between life and thought means for the nature of the universe itself. Can the being of the world-in-itself be understood independently of the thought of the world-for-us? Breaking the correlation would entail something like the nihilism of Ray Brassier, where “living thought” is deemed impossible, since truth is discovered only in the thought of thought’s own extinction. Perhaps a depth psychological approach can overcome this dichotomy between vitalism and nihilism, as from the soul’s perspective, life and death exist on a continuum. Of course, this only brings us back to the mysticism of pre-modernity. Not that this is necessarily a problem…

(as always) To be continued…

I’m pasting a dialogue that I’m having on Facebook with Steven Goodheart here so others can chime in if they so please!

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Steven remarked that my comment about the paradox of science’s ancestral statements reminded him of Roger Penrose‘s somewhat Platonist take on the matter.

I responded by saying:

Steven,

I think my statement about a witness being present at the big bang is really just to say that appealing to contemporary physical cosmology to debunk non-materialist accounts of consciousness actually raises more philosophical quandaries than is often assumed. “Science” can’t take a side in this issue. Maybe observation and mathematical inference will eventually allow us to figure out where the “laws” of physics were for the first few seconds of creation, but even if this is understood, basic philosophical questions about the relation between subject and object remain as perplexing as ever.

To which Steven responded:

I think that’s true, and may always be true, because if (and I don’t know if this is finally and only true) IF the stuff that philosophy is perplexed about exists as some sort of emergent aspect of “intelligent matter,” if the qualia of thought are in fact just that and nothing more, with no real referent to some “real” or “deeper reality’ (and again, I don’t know if this is so) then whatever neuroscience and physics can say about the *emergent* philosophical perplexities of this kind of mind and consciousness is, ipso facto, limited and provisional. More simply, the Schrodinger Equations have nothing to say about a Bach cantata, and never will. And the way neural nets fire and how they are organized will never tell us anything definitive about why “Starry Night” is so beautiful.

If there’s some deep, as yet unknown connection between the realm of values and meaning, and the realm of quarks and black holes and Big Bangs, I don’t think that’s obvious. Maybe there is; I’m open to the idea. But in the meantime, I think we do less violence to truth and avoid error if we don’t try to blend the two realms in terms of a “metaphysics” but rather keeping do the hard work of investigation and see what appears as we continue to learn about the nature of mind, consciousness, and matter.

My view is that the two domains–the domain of the qualia, the mental realm where things like meaning, values, truth, beauty, and “the good”—and the realm of brain chemistry and neural nets—are interdependent, are profoundly interrelated, but their subject matter is utterly different and, I believe, disjunctive in some basic way. I think there’s interplay between the two, and increasingly science has had a huge impact on philosophy since the age of science, apparently “solving” or making meaningless some of the old “problems” that reflected the biases of a non-scientific age. But, ironically, now, at the very limits and limitations of physics, are finding that the minds that do the science find that their “philosophy,” their view of “the beautiful, good and true,” seems to be utterly bound up in what mathematical vision of the universe is “right!” Does this mean, that, finally, it’s all been metaphysical and philosophical all along? I don’t think so.

The math of a Wheeler or a Penrose is no less beautiful (and self-consistent) than that of a Susskind or Hawkings (I *don’t* say this as one who can follow it, either, but I can get some of it) but some physicists find Penrose’s mathematical universe compelling, but more, probably, feel an affinity for that of Susskind and Hawkings. But the theory that finally “wins” is the one that proves most predictive, the one that’s verifiable, the one that can be test, and then, whether the theory is “beautiful” or “compelling” finally won’t matter. What’s matters is does the theory explain matter in a way that we can test and prove.

It seems to me that philosophical or metaphysical theories of mind and consciousness that want to, so to speak, step out of the realm of the qualia and their emergent value systems and say something about the physics of matter, space, time, energy, have to meet the same “test” criteria as Penrose’s math or Hawking’s math. And this is exactly where such theories fail again and again, however convincing, self-consistent, (and even true!) the theory may be in the realm of qualia and values.

My response:

Steven,

I don’t think avoiding “error” is necessarily the best way to further Truth. Let me explain: The most disturbing thing about the scientific era for traditional philosophy and metaphysics is evolution. I mean evolution in its cosmic, not just its biological sense. Evolution is the idea that the cosmos is really a cosmogenesis, that it is a process of becoming and not a finished product. It has an origin, and everything that there is emerged from this origin. We can’t yet say if the universe has an end, or if this end is somehow “on purpose,” but we can say that there is something more than the playing out of random collisions between particles. Chaos may be the basis of order, but still, there is order. However, this order is always developing, always evolving. What is “Truth” in the context of an ontology of process and becoming? It cannot be other than “error”; somehow, Truth is produced at the edge of chaos and order, the result of the wanderings and mistakes of the evolutionary process in its human form. It is not quite discovered and not quite created. Truth, because it is not waiting out there for us to find or represent, cannot be understood in isolation from Beauty and Goodness. We know Truth as Truth only when we feel its Beauty and will its Goodness. Truth needs to be appreciated and protected. It never simply is. It is always contested, even at an ontological level. Science discovered evolution empirically, as fact, and philosophers have thought out its implications for our knowledge of Truth (fact is not Truth until the particular instance is unpacked to reveal the universal principle underlying it). Now we need to find a way to apply it to our civilization’s ethical, aesthetic, and theological assumptions, which continue to fragment society and destroy the biosphere. I see natural science as a subset of philosophy. Science is one of humanity’s organs, perhaps the eyes; philosophy is the mind of the whole organism.

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The Sokal Affair has also been mentioned in my discussion with Steven and Julian. Here are some of my thoughts on that:

About the Sokal affair… one of Sokal’s main foes is the sociologist of science Bruno Latour. He has published extensively about the way that science “constructs” its facts. He really just goes behind the scenes to reveal how messy the process of scientific research is, how bound up in politics and economics it is; in short, he reveals that science is a cultural activity like any other, as much an art as a “science.” Is it really accurate to say, for example, that LHC particle collider is ‘discovering’ something about nature in its undisturbed state? Clearly, we are learning something about nature, but not nature as it would be independent of the artifice of technology that has been constructed to contort and torture matter so as to get it to reveal its “secrets.” In a radically evolutionary context, where even atoms are the products of irreversible processes, how do we know that what is going on in the tunnels of this accelerator isn’t actually changing nature, causing it to wander from its “normal” course? Science and art cannot be so easily separated.

I’d like to follow up on my recent post about Michael Persinger’s research on the non-local electromagnetic aspects of consciousness. There is a growing contingent of cognitive scientists taking what has come to be called the “extended mind” theory quite seriously. Andy Clark is most associated with the idea, but Levi Bryant has been blogging about it lately. The idea is pretty straightforward: while the brain may be necessary for mental phenomena (including consciousness, memory, thinking, vision, etc.), it is not sufficient, since it is primarily through the fully embodied nervous system’s transactions with the surrounding extracranial world that such phenomena are made possible. The mind may still be characterized as entirely material, but it’s circuitry is understood to extend beyond the skin to form cognitive assemblages with other people and the various media technologies we share. Without learning to read and write an alphabetic language, for example, the kind of individuated subjectivity that Westerners take for granted as basic to human nature could never arise. Consciousness is, from this perspective, still an emergent property, but an emergent property of social activity and cultural artifacts as much as neural processes.

Now, what Persinger is suggesting is similar, but way more radical in some respects. He is suggesting (with experimental data to back it up) that the brain is something like a radio receiver/transmitter that tunes in to and is affected by a globally distributed “mental-field” (or “noosphere”?) closely associated with particular electromagntic frequencies. This is more radical than Clark’s “extend mind” hypothesis only because, if mental phenomena are indeed generated or carried by electromagnetism, this implies not just the local extension of mind, but the possibility of non-local, instantaneous connections between brains independent of space-time.

I’ve shared the video of Persinger’s lecture on this research with a long-time interlocutor of mine, Julian Walker, in the hopes that his generally more skeptical approach to consciousness studies would provide for an interesting discussion. I’ve not been disappointed.

Julian raises several difficulties that I’ll respond to in turn.

First, Julian praises Persinger for his work on the relation between psychoactive plants/fungi and the origins of religion, as well as his work with the “God helmet.” This research provides down to earth accounts of what might otherwise be explained supernaturally. I agree with Persinger (and Terence McKenna!) that psychedelic substances played a crucial role in the formation of, not just religious practice, but human culture generally. I’m not so sure this account explains away religion as the byproduct of a long history of hallucinations, however. “Hallucination” never struck me as the best term to describe what occurs during the non-ordinary states of consciousness produced by psilocybin and other tryptamines. It seems far more likely to me that the profoundly opening, spiritual experiences reported by most people who have ingested such substances actually provide a closer look into reality than our ordinary consciousness (which after all evolved to allow us to survive in a world of other hungry animals, not to commune with the ground of being). If there is a hallucinatory mode of consciousness, it is the everyday, ego identification that makes us feel like tiny points of apperception lodged somewhere inside the skull. So if religious practice arose out of the psychedelic experience, I think this implies that, where religion is based in experience rather than sectarian dogma, it is of great value to humanity, since it provides us with a window into a form of life not motivated solely by biological survival, but by more spiritual values like creativity and love. It’s not that psychedelics provide proof of anything “supernatural”; rather, I think a powerful entheogenic experience can reveal just how impoverished our modern, industrialized view of “nature” has become.

Moving right along, Julian criticizes Persinger’s application of phenomena observed by quantum physicists (like non-locality) to biological organization and human subjectivity. I’d agree that such transdisciplinary work remains highly speculative, but unlike most of the thinkers who mobilize quantum physics to explain the paranormal, Persinger is actually doing the experiments to support his applications.

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with Skeptico:

Skeptico: …you do seem to be…leaning in the direction of saying that there might be other ways [other than direct sensory contact] that consciousness interacts with other consciousness… [A]re you open to the possibility that the physical structure of our brain is more of a transceiver than the agent that creates consciousness, as some people have suggested. Is that on the table for you, or…

Dr. Michael Persinger: Absolutely. There is, of course, the idea that the brain is the source of all experiences because, obviously, if you terminate it you don’t have experiences; but the counter hypothesis – actually it’s not even counter, it’s a parallel hypothesis – is that the brain is microstructured. This infinitesimal, complex pattern, is microstructured so that it can serve as a substrate for electromagnetic patterns. And those electromagnetic patterns are the behaviors and the experiences, which means technically they could exist somewhere else. That means that if indeed there is an electromagnetic pattern, a complex one though it may be, associated with consciousness, if you recreated a substructure in another kind of setting, for example, a computer or in rocks or in trees, could you have some simulation of that. This, of course, is a hypothesis that definitely deserves testing.

So I think Julian’s worry is that the well-confirmed microcosmic weirdness of quantum physics is often used to explain all sorts of phenomena on the macroscopic scale purely through analogy or other non-scientific correspondences. This is one of dangers of cross-disciplinary research. But this does not mean such research should not and cannot be done scientifically! What good is science for understanding the universe as a whole if its many theorems are locked away from one another in the watertight compartments of narrow disciplinary research? Perhaps the biggest outstanding challenge for science in the 21st century will be uniting the truths of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and, dare I say it, spirituality. Scientific disciplines are human constructs; the universe itself is a single evolving process. Yes, it appears to be differentiated and layered, but there are no gaps between layers. Neural activity is conditioned by quantum activity “below it” and by social activity “above it.” Any account of psychological/mental phenomena will remain incomplete unless these conditioning links are fully explored. I think it is especially significant that Persinger finds the brain-based and electromagnetic accounts of consciousness “parallel” rather than contradictory. I am fascinated by his research in this area, not because it implies mental phenomena are non-physical, but because it forces us to expand (quite literally) our understanding of matter.

Julian is convinced that any account of mental phenomena that suggest it is not physiologically caused contradicts everything we know about the universe dating back to the big bang. Having recently engaged with the ideas of Quentin Meillassoux concerning the ancestral statements of science, this notion seems especially shortsighted to me. Our scientific knowledge of deep time (back to the big bang) might imply something like a primordial field of awareness as an invisible background underlying the complexification of matter. Cosmologists can make claims about what happened before human consciousness or biological sentience arose, even before atomic structure arose, because they are tapping into a layer of information or memory that does not depend on complex biology. These events are based on mathematical inference, you say? Certainly, but as soon as we attempt to translate this information into some sort of physical picture, we do so “as if” there was an observer there to witness it all happening. This is a great paradox. If we are to take cosmology at its word, we either tuck this paradox under the rug or we acknowledge its strange implications. Obviously there was no biological creature around 13.7 billion years ago to witness the big bang, but without assuming a witness of some kind, there is no way to make sense of the event. Even given that some unconscious but still mind-like field connecting everything in the universe at the quantum level was present to witness the big bang, it remains difficult to imagine how time might have a beginning, or what visible space might be expanding into as it grows. It is no more difficult to imagine what the nature of this field might be like. Stranger ideas have come to be scientifically accepted.

Some questions have emerged about what the hell (or heaven) I might be talking about in my last essay about death and the soul. These questions provide me with an opportunity to reflect on my own writing in an attempt to more fully articulate the vision behind it. I don’t already have answers to these questions, but now that they have been asked, I will try my best to respond to them.

Most of the questions inquire into the nature of the World-Soul. I’ll answer each in turn.

1) What is the relation between the World-Soul and the individual soul?

The relation is that between a Macrocosm and a Microcosm. The individual soul is the World-Soul in miniature, its holographic or fractal recapitulation on a different scale or level. Logically, there is no way to coherently prove that something infinite and eternal is related to something finite and temporal; it appears to be a blatant contradiction. The best medieval neo-Platonist theologians argued endlessly about how God might be related to man, always trying to avoid describing man as too close in nature to the divine, an obvious heresy (at least if you ignore most of what Jesus is reported to have taught about the relation between the Father and His Children), or placing man too far away from divinity, such that all communication between Creator and creature (even revelation) is made impossible. Even if its nature cannot be precisely formulated by the human tongue, somehow the World-Soul (as Plato describes it in the Timaeus) is able to reconcile or mediate between creature and Creator (or between Difference and Identity, Time and Eternity, the Good and the World). I can only offer a likely story about how and why this is so. Tell the tale in whatever way you’d like, somehow or other the One becomes Many, remaining One despite being in each of the Many. The differentiation of the One is not just an accident, but of its very nature. The One becomes Many. God creates. To say “God” is already to speak God’s Word, which is the creation of worlds. The Creator cannot exist without the creation and the creature.

2) What is the relation between the World-Soul, Wisdom, and the shadows of human history? 

If there were a complete and simple identity between the perfection of the World-Soul and the events of human history, it would seem to be well hidden beneath the violent warfare, economic pettiness, and ecological ignorance of our kings, generals, corporations and  nations. Clearly, there is a clog in the pipelines from heaven. I think opening this portal requires that human beings engage with the universe religiously and spiritually, especially through the sorts of initiatory rites practiced by the world’s Mystery schools, where the death-rebirth experience is ritually reproduced. Initiates into such traditions encounter Wisdom first hand, which is the only way, since Wisdom cannot be taught verbally by others. Hegel wrote about the World-Spirit, which was the particular human community that most fully incarnated the Idea at any given point in history. This is very controversial, raising questions about the ethics of thinking race, culture, and/or gender, since in speaking about the World-Spirit, Hegel implies that the German people of his time were providing Spirit the clearest portal into world history. Hegel also claimed he was not a philosopher, since he no longer loved wisdom but had attained it. I can’t speak for his claim, but even if he had Wisdom then, he doesn’t any longer!

3) Why is the soul normally depicted as feminine? What is the relation between body and soul? 

I depict the Soul as feminine because my consciousness is masculine. It is a bit like a mirror, this psyche of mine, and so whenever I attempt to feel for her I find what ever it is in me that is not doing the feeling. The soul is not a body that can be seen, but my own body deeply felt (which, it turns out, is not other than the whole world). Her beauty is not in appearance only, but it is not despite appearance, either. It is not independent of the body, but nor are the two, body and soul, simply identical. You could say our individual bodies are modes of the World-Soul, but this would bring up all sorts of parallels with Spinoza that I’m not sure are appropriate (or at least that I can’t explore fully at the moment). I think Beauty is not an idea at all, but a relationship. Beauty is that which is produced when soul and body are in resonance with each other, when the one is able to recognize the other as a friend.

4) Is the World-Soul “heavy,” or is it the lightness of being? What is the difference between mass and energy/matter and light? 

If Wisdom is light, the World-Soul is matter. The World-Soul is that which underlies the animate materiality of the world. Matter is everywhere self-organizing, and it does so out of the power of the World-Soul to unify identity and difference, or eternity and time. Individual souls, animate beings, are heavy, because they each inevitably die. They are bodily beings: they are born, they age, and they die. The universal being, cosmic animal, or Living Thing spoken of in Plato’s Timaeus, is supposed by Plato to be eternal. But perhaps this World and its Soul will die, just like us. I tend to think that the physical universe known to contemporary science will indeed die, in some sense, but that this death will only be an opening onto a universe whose dimensions we (consciousness, Spirit) cannot yet fathom while still on this side of the 13.7 billion light year expanse of space surrounding us.  Intuitively, it seems as though there is no outside to this universe, that is has no biggest body that includes all others as organs. Rather, it is an infinitely nested fractal of creative expression dying and being reborn forever and always. A visionary participation in this fractal provides the lightness of Wisdom that counteracts the heaviness of the inevitable death that will remind us again of our source in the World-Soul.

A reflection after participating in Steven Goodman‘s “Tibetan Trickster” workshop at CIIS several weekends ago. See my follow up comments to this essay here.

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I should begin. I don’t know how much time I have… I’d like to tell you a secret, even though I’m not sure if I can repeat it exactly as I hear it whispered to me inwardly even at this very moment. It is my secret, you see, and by verbalizing it in order to share it with someone else, it will undoubtedly lose some of its existential force. However, despite its being my secret, and so difficult to communicate to others, I know intuitively that it is of ultimate concern to everyone. I must risk telling you, even if it sounds at first like something obvious, something you’ve known since you were seven years old. It is a Big Secret, but it won’t dispel The Mystery or explain Life’s Meaning; knowing it can only deepen the mystery of your life’s meaning.

Are you ready? You may never be. It takes a whole life to prepare for. Here goes: it is absolutely certain that you and everyone you love will die.

Did you hear me? Now listen for an echo of what I’ve said within you. If you hear it, know that it is not an echo, but your own soul sharing the essence of her earthly mission with you. Ask your soul: “Why have you wed yourself to this mortal body?” I imagine she will answer as mine has: “Because love means nothing without death; there is no other way for Spirit to truly matter, no other way for your soul to find its way back to heaven but to die with love in your heart.”

  Behind death hides the Immortal Soul. It is not your’s that lives forever, mind you, but the World’s Soul. The World-Soul is love itself, the center of all creation, the gravity that “moves the sun and other stars.”

The Soul is a universal embrace holding all things together in the radiant space of Wisdom. But Wisdom’s light is not always bright enough to make the meaning of matter transparent, and so the Soul is also a battlefield upon which the chaos of shadow confrontation unfolds. Human history, which provides the background and container of your own personal life, is a “tangled web of fate” spun by the sustained encounter of Soul with shadow, Spirit with matter, Self with other. Death is denied by most human cultures, becoming a great evil to be fought against at every turn. Our fear of death’s ego-dissolving depths leads to all kinds of violence against other mortals, since the only power over death we are capable of securing comes by taking the life of others.

Perhaps it is not ignorant power that truly defeats death, but clear insight into the mystery hiding in its depths. Do not forget to hear death’s secret. Turn inward and face death squarely: Wisdom can be heard, in the still, dark center of our souls, beneath the crowded places and tormented faces of earthly time, silently speaking the Truth of freedom and love. History cannot escape the gravity of the World-Soul, and so inevitably there germinates within her the seed of enantiodromia: the shadow, confronted and integrated, becomes its opposite. When the horror of the shadow is swallowed, the Soul becomes pregnant with the Savior. Light shines through matter from the far side of death, escaping its dark lie to emerge within our soul as Wisdom, becoming our spirit-guide or daemon.

What had been a fearsome phenomenon observed only second hand through the death of others becomes what it always really was: the numinous source of all meaning and spiritual substance of all love. No longer something abstractly held at a distance from life, death becomes itself the point of the emergence of the mind’s present perspective, the Seer behind all that is seen. The Soul is not living as opposed to being dead, she is the Life that conquers death, the portal through which eternity flows into and transforms history, one generation at a time.

Death is a trickster. At once the most sacred and the most desecrated of rites, it shapes your life long before it ends it. If Socrates was right and the Soul is immortal, then death does not end our need of her love.

“…The soul demands our care not only for that part of time we call life, but for all time… If death were a release from everything, it would be a gift-of-Hermes (hermaion) for the wicked, because by dying they would be released not only from the body but also from their own wickedness together with the soul” (Phaedo).

But death, despite the Soul’s everlastingness, may still be Hermes’ gift to saint and sinner alike, since it carries with it a secret message to each individual human being from the gods. The secret is one I have tried to tell, but in the end it can only be heard in one’s own heart, there whispered by the Soul. In truth, it is a secret that cannot be shared between mortals, since its meaning cannot be limited by any language, nor pointed at by any finger. It is an open secret whose signature is nowhere in particular precisely because it can be found everywhere in the universe: in the passing clouds of the daytime sky, in the folds of our aging palm, in the names of those we love. There is no great significance in anything but for its being a sign of transience and death. All earthly things point away from their origin and toward their own demise, and it is precisely by indicating that which is before and beyond them that they are illuminated and made alluring to the Soul. A beautiful thing is never just what it is. It also is not, and in the space of this not, the whole of eternity is opened to our loving contemplation.

Humans are unique in our ability to sense what is not there, in our capacity to think and to feel not just actuality, but possibility. This power to recognize what is not is as much our gift as our curse, since it all but erases the instinctual “species knowledge” that so perfectly situates other creatures in the world according to their natures (Trickster Makes this World, by Lewis Hyde, p. 42). For this reason, despite the apparent harmony of the cosmos in which we live, we are generally riddled by anxiety and shame, imitating others since we are never sure how to behave ourselves. We lack our own way, and sense also in the life of the world that a certain arbitrariness is responsible for its beauty. There seems to be no universal principle to determine what is aesthetically pleasing from what is not. Beauty is unruly; its concreteness cannot be made to conform to formal notions of symmetry or measure. Tragedy is as touching as comedy, the absurd as provocative as the ordered. Beauty is seen or felt in a thing not because of what it is, but because of what it makes possible within the Soul who sees or feels it.

Perhaps our anxiety is due not only to our sense of the possible, and to the lack of a natural way that results, but also to our aborted knowledge of death. We know only that we will die, that a threshold will be met that surely will transform the ego and the arbitrarily ordered world it has come to think of as real. We do not know, however, what this transformation will produce in us, nor how we ought to conceive of the eternal nowhere and nowhen that it takes us. Knowing that, while not knowing what–this is the recipe for a lifetime’s worth of anxiety.

Typically, human cultures construct “cosmetologies” to cover up their ontological insecurity. These stories provide us with masks to hide our deep wounds and to avoid our having to face the forms of cosmic order and chaos at work outside our feeble comfort zones. What is needed is a more compassionate and developmentally open ontology, a cardiontology or mettaphysics, that provides a way of encountering the demons associated with death as our teachers. Demons can be invited into the Soul in order to help us heal, since it is they who carry to us an awareness of that which we are least aware and least compassionate. Only when demons are rejected do they seem to be motivated by evil intentions; faced with loving kindness, they lose agency altogether and are revealed to consist only of our own unclaimed traumatic material.

Has the secret been adequately told? Perhaps not. Though its meaning can only be postponed by being summarized (since its essence is either heard at once or forgotten), the limits of my medium require that I do so.

In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich, Ivan says, “At the moment of death I hope to be surprised,” and doubtless death will be quite a surprise for most of us. Why so? Because, according to our common sense, death is the end, something we have never experienced before and can never experience until we die.  Sure, plenty of us give ourselves various religious labels, belong to such and such a church, temple, mosque, or monastery, believing in this or that kind of afterlife… but how much of it is genuine? How much of our own spiritual opinions do we take seriously? It has become hard in today’s skeptically-minded times to truly believe anything but the standard company line that our entire existence on Earth consists of nothing but this one fleeting breath of life between birth and death. It is commonly thought that to demand more is to regress into fantasy, to ignore the hard fact of life that is death. But surely even the skeptical rationalists, beneath their veneer of intellectual pride, still feel the chilling air of uncertainty bubbling up from the darkness of their own impending death.

Death unites us all in a common mystery, though most of us mistake it for misery. If death is really the end of our personality, and by all biological accounts it seems to be, then what is it all for? Why live? What more could life be, in this case, but a hesitation, a rejection of the inevitable, a denial of our fate? To consider ourselves alive, we must deny ourselves death. But our denial cannot prevent its inevitable arrival. It’s coming to swallow us up into a timeless void for all eternity and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. In such a situation, there is only one reasonable option for those seeking freedom. In the teachings of the Buddha, we find a path toward the realization of this freedom. But the path, rather than leading away from death, leads directly into it. The Buddha suggests, in other words, that we learn to “die” while still alive, so that the eventual death of our bodies won’t be such a shock to us. This death while still alive is enlightenment, realization of the Dharma, and it consists in seeing deeply enough into the Soul in order to discover that which is neither dead nor alive but eternal.

If the struggle against death gives rise to the ego—in a sense, is the ego—then the dissolution of the ego should be one and the same as the acceptance of death. The Buddha’s doctrine of anatman here becomes relevant in that it reveals the selfless nature of reality, thereby giving one the sense that death need not be feared because there never was anyone to die to begin with. Similarly, the Buddha’s doctrine of sunyata, or emptiness, shows us that life has meaning only within the context of death, and vice versa. Life itself has no self-nature. Its appearance in the relative realm of maya depends on its contextual relationship with death. In such a realm, life means whatever death does not, just as death means whatever life does not. The Buddha saw the trap inherent to all discursive methods of thought that attempt to understand the life-death polarity intellectually. The coincidence of these opposites can be known only experientially, and even then, their reconciliation inevitably slips away and is forgotten.

Contemporary humanity finds itself in just such a strange epistemological paradox. We are convinced out of sheer habit of thought that the meaning of life is knowable and rational—that it obeys a reliable and symbolically describable order, and that it has some demonstrable purpose; but all the while, whenever we happen to stop and look into the mystery of our own being, we become aware of the terrifying fact that all of our supposed knowledge rests on blind assumptions about the completely unknowable experience of death that will one day befall us.

We, as civilized humans, are raised to act and think as though we are isolated individuals, as if our skin was an ultimate boundary completely cutting us off from the world around us. We are brought up in a way that distorts our initial childhood perception of reality, which is the simple truth of our growth out of this world, and therefore of our inseparable connection to it. This intuition is denied and repressed in favor of the more intellectually useful idea of having been thrown into this world.  From this outside, third-person perspective, scientific map-making becomes possible. Such maps are directly responsible for the great technological successes of our society. But the rewards of this perspective come at a cost. By pretending to be an outsider on our own planet, we have alienated ourselves from nature. This “outsider’s view” of the universe is a major source of our anxiety about death, as any human who was in touch with his nature would be as accepting of his death as he was of any other naturally occurring event. Were we to remain in touch with our childhood intuitions about reality, we would not fear death but instead spend our lives preparing for it with great excitement and expectation.

“To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise,” says Socrates,

“for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”

Most of you have probably already heard of Michael Persinger. He is a distinguished and extensively published cognitive neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Ontario. He is best known for his research with the “God Helmet,” which is supposed to give most people who wear it a non-ordinary state of consciousness often described as encountering a divine intelligence or spiritual presence. Richard Dawkins tried it and only reported feeling a bit more relaxed in his limbs. Susan Blackmore (another cognitive neuroscientist) reported having one of the most profound experiences of her life. The helmet produces a weak magnetic field that alters the neural activity in a specific brain region in the temporal lobe of the right hemisphere. Persinger sometimes sounds like a bit of a reductionist when we speaks about the implications of this helmet, but recently he gave a lecture about other experiments he has done showing the connections between the electromagnetic activity of human brains and the activity of earth’s electromagnetic field. Really fascinating stuff, especially since it is coming from a very well respected and experimentally-grounded neuroscientist.

Persinger’s lecture

He ends up suggesting that the brain is analogous to a radio receiver or a television. This implies that consciousness isn’t produced inside the skull, but is a non-local field within which information is shared at the speed of light (i.e., independent of space-time). He seems to suggest that his lab has developed the beginnings of a communications technology capable of reading and/or controlling minds.

I have seen plenty of other “experts” in whatever-ology present their theories about these sorts of connections, but Persinger’s has hit me at a deeper level for some reason.