Here I am with Aaron Weiss, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and doctoral candidate at CIIS, talking about the nature of consciousness and what to do about it. The first talk was filmed back in April; the second was filmed in September as a follow-up.
Check out this interesting post by my cousin, Seth Segall, over at the Existential Buddhist. The topics Seth discusses include whether consciousness is emergent from or intrinsic to the physical world, the place of values (human or otherwise) in the universe, and the variety of God concepts available to those willing to philosophize about such matters. Seth also compares the ideas of the 13th century Zen Buddhist monk Dogen, the 17th century Jewish philosopher Spinoza, and the 20th century mathematician and cosmologist A.N. Whitehead.
I could never believe in a supernatural, anthropomorphic God, an omniscient autocrat standing outside of creation, judging it, and miraculously intervening in accordance with our prayers and petitions—in other worlds, the kind of God that Whitehead describes as having the attributes of “a Caesar.” “God talk” doesn’t interest me or turn me on. As I’ve mentioned in another post, when I hear “God” mentioned in a Dharma talk, my mind wanders off. But how different — really — are Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s naturalistic, creative, immanent Gods from Dogen’s understanding of the dharmakaya? How different is Whitehead’s God who experiences the experiences of the world and nudges us towards love and beauty from Dogen’s compassionate Avalokitesvara who hears the cries of the world and awakens us to wisdom beyond wisdom? Even if one dispenses with Gods and Buddhas, if mentality, morality and aesthetics can be features of reality right down to the bone, why can’t reality also include some non-supernatural “spiritual” dimension as well? Some beneficial principle that encourages us and the world towards greater love and compassion, beauty and understanding, and our own best selves? I’m not convinced, like Whitehead and Spinoza, that God is either necessary or tenable, but I’m more open to consider it than I once was. That’s why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist; it’s what keeps me from joining the secularist camp.
I appreciate Seth’s pragmatic (in the Jamesian sense) approach to these questions. I do not pretend to any metaphysical certainty about the existence of the Whiteheadian or any other God. From my perspective, we inhabit a cosmos that is always on the edge of chaos with nothing guaranteeing continued peace, goodness, or beauty. I do believe these ideals are realized in the ongoing genesis of this universe to a degree far greater than mere chance, but I cannot go so far as to claim they are metaphysical necessities. I think the process-relational God articulated by Whitehead allows us to recognize the realization of these ideals as somewhere in-between utterly contingent and totally necessary. They are potentials freely realized by the creatures of this cosmos because of their intrinsic desirability. Nothing is to stop any particular being in some particular circumstance from desiring otherwise. On the other hand, Whitehead makes it clear that we cannot speak of a “cosmic order” without already assuming the realization of an ideal of beauty. For Whitehead, all order is aesthetic order. In other words, no beauty, no cosmos. So the fact that there is a cosmos at all is already evidence enough that the scales are tipped toward harmony.
Check out the video from their exchange at Northwestern earlier this year. Below are some of my notes and reflections after watching…
Owen Flanagan argues that physicalism is the only feasible view. Naturalism is the inference to the best explanation. Conscious states are brain states. At some point in evolutionary history, somehow dead matter came to life, and some time later, somehow, life became conscious. There can only be physical solutions to these problems.
Flanagan argues that I can never have another person’s experience, that consciousness is inherently private.
Flanagan quotes the Dalai Lama, who counters physicalism with the claim that, while gross mental states may be physiological, our innate nature–the luminous core of consciousness–is not limited by the brain.
Evan Thompson had four key points: 1) consciousness is primary, 2) physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodologically, 3) neuroscience must integrate embodied phenomenology, and 4) contemplative practice can help us with this integration.
1) Primacy of consciousness first established by Kant, elaborated by Husserl… Consciousness is not something we have, it is something we live. If we lost it, we would no longer be. Without consciousness, there is no world, there is no science. This is a horizonal conception of consciousness. It cannot be objectified.
Consciousness has epistemological primacy. Scientific models of the world are distillations of our conscious experience as observers. We never step outside consciousness to see the world from nowhere. It makes no sense to try to reduce consciousness to one or another of our scientific models.
2) Physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodology. What is it to be physical, anyway? Let’s try to define it: the physical is what today’s science says it is. But that can’t be right, since there are deep and fundamental problems with current physics, so we have to define the physical by pointing to some future scientific conception of matter… But what if it turns out that the panpsychists are right and it turns out that mental states are as fundamental as material states at the most fundamental scale? Or, what if it turns out there is no fundamental scale?
We need to enlarge our conception of the scientific method if we hope to account for consciousness scientifically.
3) Neuroscience must integrate phenomenology. Science cannot objectify the subjective if it hopes to understand the subjective as such. For Thompson, consciousness requires not only a brain, but a body and a world. Science must therefore approach consciousness intersubjectively. Which is easy, since science is already an intersubjective enterprise guided by peer review. Scientists are always already involved in lived experience and their work is always already phenomenological.
4) Contemplative traditions can teach us about the ontology of consciousness. The training of awareness and emotional response, learning to cognitive reappraise our knee-jerk reactions, etc., may be necessary to understand the underlying nature of experience. Learning to distinguish our narrative sense of self from our present moment experience or embodied sense of self has measurable neurological effects. The science of consciousness requires a circle of hermeneutical exchange between (at least!) neuroscientists, phenomenologists, anthropologists, and contemplative practitioners.
As Thompson describes it: “Whatever counts as ‘nature’ can’t be understood apart from human cognitive practices of investigating nature, and therefore can’t be given absolute explanatory primacy over mind.”
I with him for the same reasons I’m on board with Bruno Latour‘s ontological constructivism. I’m not sure Evan would go so far, however, as he seems to plant his feet firmly on phenomenological ground, and so in some sense his claims about the limits of physicalism are not really metaphysical, but epistemological. I don’t know if Husserl is enough here…
Thompson ends with some questions about the ethics of consciousness studies. He wants us to ask not only “what is consciousness?“, but “what sort of consciousness do we want to cultivate?” This isn’t a question many cognitive scientists seem to be asking…
In his rebuttal, Flanagan acuses Thompson of “romantic rhapsodizing” for claiming that consciousness is “all we are and all we have.” He questions whether we can really take our phenomenological intuitions seriously. He also wonders if even highly refined introspective practices (like Buddhist meditation) aren’t just unnecessarily theoretically front-loading experimental work. Unlike Thompson, Flanagan thinks science can objectify consciousness.
In his response, Thompson clarifies the ontological principles underlying the particular school of Buddhism (Madhyamika) that he thinks is relevant to the scientific study of consciousness. For Mādhyamikas, there is no underlying substance or essence to anything, whether physical or mental, because all apparently separate things are really dependently co-arising phenomena. From this point of view, not only can’t consciousness be objectified, nothing can. Thompson looks to this Buddhist tradition in an attempt to draw Western cognitive scientists into a cross-cultural dialogue, not so we can all become Buddhists, but so we can learn from a tradition that has been studying human mental processes from a first and second person point of view for thousands of years longer than Western science has been studying it from a third person view. And learning from them doesn’t mean we accept bad arguments about the ontology of consciousness.
Thompson agrees with Flanagan that we can objectify the mind, he just doesn’t think we can do so exhaustively. There will always be something left out of an objective account of subjectivity (duh?).
- Responding to comments about Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (footnotes2plato.com)
- Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism (footnotes2plato.com)
Entropy is the measure of order in any system. In this regard, to take a rough and ready criterion, the more probable it is that a particular element is located anywhere in a system the more entropy that system embodies. By contrast, the more improbable the location of an element in a system, theless entropic that system is. Thus, systems characterized by high entropy are highlychaotic or disordered, while systems characterized by low entropy are highly ordered. Finally, those systems that maintain the improbability of the location of their elements over time are referred to as “negentropic”. “Negentropy” is a sort of portmanteau word combining “negation” and “entropy”, signifying “the negation of entropy”. In other words, negentropic systems like my body or a corporation are systems that maintain their order.
I posted a comment which read:
I’ve always been somewhat confused by definitions of entropy in terms of probability. It makes perfect sense if I think about molecules of gas in a closed chamber; but on the scale of the universe as a whole in space and time, why is it that entropy is assumed to be more probable than “negentropy”? In the universe we observe (which includes ourselves as observers), there seems to be no reason to assume that disorderliness is anymore probable than orderliness. I see more reason to assume the opposite. Clearly, objects tend to age; but in the case of organisms, the process of aging is also (for the first half of life at least) a process of development and complexification. Phylogenically, organic life has moved from the very simple (prokaryotes) through various stages to the very complex (social mammals). I’ve read complexity theorists who account for this negentropic movement in terms of the tendency of matter to seek equilibrium of energy gradients. But what produces these gradients in the first place? Doesn’t matter also have a tendency to congeal, to fold in upon itself, to complexify? If so, why do we refer to this tendency in the negative, as if it were incidental to the dominant entropic tendency of nature? What about the more neutral term “centropy”?
To which Bryant responded with:
The thesis is not that entropy is more probable in the universe, but that the degree of entropy in a system is a measure of probability in that system. Your questions about gradients suffers from the same problem as intelligent design arguments in biology. You’re basically saying that if there’s order there must have been a designer or an author and are unable to conceive emergent order without authorship.
To which I responded with:
I certainly would not want to conjure up a transcendent designer. That is why I spoke of matter itself having the tendency to complexify. My comment was not an attempt to suggest we need a designer to account for cosmic order. My point was that order seems no less probable than disorder on the cosmological scale. This makes the term “negentropy” seem inappropriate, since it defines order as if it were the accident and entropy the necessity. If we assume something like the big bang model is correct, then leaning on entropy to explain away all the order in the universe as an accidental by-product requires positing that the universe began in a state of hyper-improbability/zero-entropy.
Instead of positing something so improbable because of what seems to me to be an extra-philosophical commitment to nihilism (where everything inevitably is blindly running down towards heat death), why not posit a tendency to life/organization right alongside the tendency to death/dispersal? More appropriate terms for the former tendency might be “centropy,” or “exergy,” which could be understood to operate alongside entropy as the two poles of some more basic, ineffable power/energy underlying the creation and destruction of everything.
Later in the same post, Bryant links his thoughts concerning entropy to Ray Brassier‘s ontology of extinction. I quote Bryant at length:
In many respects, the role that entropy plays in my thought places me close to the metaphysical, political, and ethical conclusions of Ray Brassier. In Nihil Unbound, Brassier argues that the ultimate truth of existence is extinction. In making this claim, he’s not simply pointing out that we all die, but is claiming that at some point the human species will become extinct and that the universe itself will undergo heat death…Brassier argues that the thought of radical extinction carries with it an enlightenment. What might this enlightenment be? Why might this horrific thought of erasure, extinction, be enlightening and ethically invigorating?…I must know the nature of physical reality to answer the question of how best to live, how best to organize society, what to aim for, what to hope for, etc. Lurking in the background of all materialist thought is the hunch that one of the central sources of human suffering is, on the one hand, the “two world hypothesis”, and, on the other hand, what might be called “messianism” and salvation…If we situate Brassier’s radical nihilism in this context, we can see why it is a sort of enlightenment. The truth of extinction is not the gloomy thought that all is pointless because everything is going to be destroyed anyway. Rather, the thought experiment of radical extinction hopefully accomplishes three aims. Insofar as the truth of every person’s life is death (i.e., there’s no afterlife), we should not direct ourselves to an afterlife, but rather should devote ourselves to this life. How can we live in relation to ourselves, to others, and to the earth in order to best live this brief spark that we possess? How should society be transformed and organized to maximize this existence? Second, the truth of extinction with respect to the existence of the human species has the effect of decentering us. We can imagine a world where we are absent. As a consequence, we are not at the center of existence. We are one being– certainly important to ourselves –among others, and we are a being like the others destined to pass away. This discovery encourages us to both respect other beings, but also to recognize the fragility of ourselves and the world we rely on and therefore attend to the preservation of that world. Finally, the extinction of the universe cures us of messianism. There is no apocalypse, no final revelation of the truth, no final salvation, just this world. As such, we should squarely direct ourselves at this world and the work required to maintain this world, not at a world to come or an afterlife.
It’s somewhat easy to tell “just so” stories about how one metaphysical position or another will effect the general public’s common sense ethical beliefs and practices. Bryant’s story is isn’t entirely improbable, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, would tell a story about reincarnation and karma that might be even more ethically compelling to those who experience it as true. Rather than the horrific thought of erasure, Tibetan Buddhist accounts of reincarnation suggest what may at first appear to be the even more horrific thought of endless suffering. Though the doctrine of non-self is difficult to square with that of reincarnation, I don’t believe it is entirely wrong from the perspective of this tradition to suggest that all “I” really am in this incarnation is a collection of dependently co-arising causes and conditions. In other words, I am karma. My suffering as as separate self is the result of accumulated karma; further, I should not hope for extinction, since this same karma, “my” suffering (which is also the suffering of every sentient being), will continue to reincarnate forever. Forever, that is, unless the inherent emptiness of all supposedly self-existent things is realized here and now. From this perspective, one is lead to compassion for all presently existing beings (human or non-) precisely because any of these beings could be the reincarnation of one’s own mother. Similarly, one is lead to compassion for all future beings because that in us which doesn’t die (i.e., karma) will be present in and as them.
Levi Bryant has problematized my attempt to clarify Whitehead’s position on the function of divinity in the universe. He writes:
“You make the claim that without God there would be chaos and no order. This is a problematic claim for two reasons. First, you have repeatedly tried to claim that God isn’t supposed to explain anything, yet here you are evoking God to explain order. Second, it is unclear why, 1) God is required to explain order (the fact that order exists doesn’t entail that it must have been designed), and 2) it is not clear what God would explain about this order in such an account…”
I will admit that I am still thinking through these issues myself. Whitehead’s writing in this area is illuminating, but much remains obscure. I am struggling to “think with” Whitehead, not so much because his “arguments” are convincing, but because I come to his work already sharing many of the problems he found interesting. One of these is the problem of God, but I did not come to philosophize about God in order to rationalize my faith. God was not at first a religious belief for me. Though I went to temple and church as a child (mixed religious family), I began referring to myself as an atheist at 12 years old after learning a bit about cosmology from Steven Hawking and biology from Richard Dawkins. I remained highly skeptical of religious claims as my understanding of science and cultural relativity grew throughout my teens. Then, as a 17 year old, I learned a bit about the psychology of religion from Carl Jung. I came to to realize that our scientific narratives about the origins of the universe and life on earth are still mythically structured and shaped by cultural attitudes. Jung lead me into a deeper study of anthropology and the evolution of consciousness, allowing me to bracket the “reality” of God in order to consider God’s effect as a symbol, or archetypal complex, on the history of the human psyche. Soon after, I discovered the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser (a friend and associate of Jung’s), who completely transformed the way I conceive of the relationship between rational and religious consciousness. Eventually, like Whitehead, I came back to religion and theology (I feel most at home in the dialogue and practice emerging from the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity) as a result of philosophical reflection upon life. As a teenager, I thought God seemed like a belief added to experience by religious doctrine. After reading Jung and Gebser, I came to see the experience of God as constitutive of the order and harmony of our human consciousness of the world. After reading Whitehead, I saw that, for the sake of metaphysical coherence, God must also be constitutive of the order of the world itself.
One of Whitehead’s colleagues at Harvard, Ernest Hocking, reports that (Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on his Philosophy, 1963, p. 16), in regards to the concept of God, Whitehead once told him:
“I should never have included it, if it had not been strictly required for descriptive completeness. You must set all your essentials into the foundation. It is no use putting up a set of terms, and then remarking, ‘Oh, by the way, I believe there’s a God.”
Is God an explanation for order in Whitehead’s system? Not exactly. God is not best described as the cause of harmony, nor the designer of the world, since Whitehead’s God is involved in the world, as much the effect of its harmony as its cause. It would still be true to say that, without God, chaos would reign; but this doesn’t necessarily mean God is the explanation for order. Rather, God is the very presence of order in the world, not an absent designer who orchestrates the world’s order from a position beyond it. God is embedded in the world as a kind of aesthetic gravity holding otherwise conflicting possibilities together so as to transform them into novel contrasts in the experiences of actual occasions. Actual occasions are the only reasons for Whitehead, which is to say that God is not an explanation for the order brought forth by their individual decisions. God is also an actual occasion, a creature of Creativity, but God’s creatureliness is everlasting. As a result, God’s primordial nature conditions all temporal experiences as an ingredient in the concrescence of those experiences. God is what mediates between the infinite possibilities of Creativity and the finite actualities of the Universe. God is the World-Soul allowing ideas passage into reality. In this sense, Whitehead’s reformed Platonism is similar to Schelling’s, who built on the description of the World-Soul and its role in the realization of Ideas given by Plato in the Timeaus (I unpack these ideas in this essay on Schelling).
It may still remain unclear to Bryant exactly why God became necessary in the course of Whitehead’s, and my own, reflection upon reality. As I said at the outset, I struggle to think with Whitehead because I share his sense of what matters, of what the problems of philosophy ought to be given the facts of experience. Given these facts, as I experience them, the most urgent philosophical task is to bring together the insights of scientific experiment and religious experience into one rational scheme of thought.
“Throughout this discussion you have repeatedly appealed to 30,000 years of human religious experience that philosophy has a duty to account for. You seem to take this experience as evidence that there must be some ontological truth to the claims of religion (i.e., that God exists). Over at Knowledge Ecology’s blog I pointed out that there are at least 30,000 years of racism and sexism and that the form of your argument about God seems to commit you and Whitehead to the position that the ontological claims of racism and sexism must contain some truth.”
Adam has offered a response that I am largely in agreement with. He distinguishes between facts of experience and truths of experience. Religion, racism, and sexism are each facts of experience, though I am not prepared to claim that the content of these experiential modes necessarily corresponds to reality. I take a broadly Jamesian/Deweyan/Peircian approach to truth, however, in that I am more concerned with the effects of our descriptions of reality than with their accurate correspondence to a supposedly pre-given world. The truth of the claims arising out of religious experience are to be judged, from the pragmaticist perspective, by a “consideration of the experimental differences in the conduct of life which would conceivably result from the affirmation or denial of the [claim] in question,” as Dewey puts it (Century Dictionary, 1909). I think certain religious ideas and meanings stand on far better footing than racism and sexism in this respect, since the later two modes of thought have only been productive of hatred, violence, and injustice. I judge the experiential possibilities of racism and sexism to be undesirable based on “the experimental differences in the conduct of life” that their practice has been productive of in the past. No doubt some religious ideas have also been productive of violence and injustice, but I think it would be disingenuous to claim that religion has offered nothing positive to humanity. My pragmaticism may go beyond traditional definitions at this point, but when dealing with the ontology of the claims arising from experience, I take a radically participatory view. The history of humanity represents the Universe’s struggle to discover its own nature: we are the Universe’s conscious testing ground of truth, beauty, and goodness. These are ideals which are still in the process of working themselves out in our (and the universe’s) history. It is not simply a given that racism is wrong; its wrongness is a fact that must be discovered in our moral feelings and defended by our ethical practices. If Nazi Germany had won WW2, and its Final Solution had succeeded, we might be living in a world where the experiential facts confirmed the truth of racism. Fortunately, because of an outpouring of ethical will, this possibility was kept at bay. It has now become an ethical fact that genocidal racism is wrong, but only because the moral feelings of one sector of global society won out over another. Goodness is always at stake, always being defined and redefined in the adventure of civilization.
I’ve written about what a participatory spirituality looks like for me. I have more work to do to flesh it out, of course…
Finally, Bryant writes:
In your post over at footnotes2plato you make the odd claim that somehow naturalism prevents us from fighting neoliberal capitalism. This ignores the rather obvious fact that 1) Marxist thought is a naturalistic position, 2) those European countries that are most socialized are also overwhelmingly secular, and 3) religion has repeatedly sided with capitalism throughout history and provided support for forces that underly these forms of capitalism.
I would make the claim that atheistic naturalism (wherein the whole point of the scientific endeavor becomes the thorough disenchantment of the universe) makes criticism of neoliberal capitalism more difficult, since I think such critiques must penetrate to the metaphysical underpinnings of capitalism in order to be effective. These underpinnings include what Donna Haraway has referred to as “productionism”:
“Productionism and its corollary, humanism, come down to the story line that ‘man makes everything, including himself, out of the world that can only be resource and potency to his project and active agency’” -“The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others,” in Cultural Studies (1992), p. 297
Marx’s humanistic orientation and productionist metaphysics suggests to me that his naturalistic assumptions leave the deeper metaphysical structure of capitalism (that which makes it so socially and ecologically disruptive) untouched. Also, even if Marx himself was less than enthusiastic about religion, there are plenty of examples of religious communists, for whom it is religious experience that compels them to adopt communist ideals. Marx’s may have been a naturalistic position, but the Marxisms emerging in his wake have not always been.
As for “secularized” Europe, polls suggest that as much as 76% of Sweden, 80% of Denmark, 79% of Norway, 61% of France, 72% of Germany, 71% of the Netherlands, and 78% of the United Kingdom either believe in God or in”some sort of spirit or life force.” Church attendance may be down across much of the Continent, but this seems to be reflective of a move toward less conventional, more individual forms of post-religious spiritual expression.
A religious revival itself will not necessarily put a dent in capitalism. Žižek is fond of pointing out how New Age spirituality only functions to support the commodification of religious practice. And in some sense, even religion as understood esoterically (in both Western and Eastern contexts) may only foster a withdrawal into the apoliticism of mystical contemplation. This is why I think Whitehead’s philosophical project is so important, since it presents us with a way to bring science, religion, and politics into a more mutually enhancing relationship.
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?”