Climate Scientists Contemplate Moves To Canada and Greenland

Buy land in Canada now?

This is crazy. Wow. Climate scientists discuss their angst and frustration with Esquire over being ignored about global warming. They’re obviously seeing themselves as today’s Noahs, sounding the alarm–and like Noah, they’re not being heard.

And if you don’t listen to Noah, what does Noah do?

A number of our contemporary Noahs are confessing to actively contemplating bug-out scenarios for their families (moving to Canada and Greenland are the main contenders, it appears). That’s how bad the climate science is starting to look to experts.

So they’ve got private ark ambitions.

The irony is that there may be many Americans, blowing off climate change and resentful of Mexican immigration today, contemplating their own desperate immigration to Canada in the future.

Will Canada need a wall? The Great Wall of Canada? Keep the Americans out?

There’s been a rush of dystopic news on climate change in the past week or so. An off-the-charts burst of west winds in the Pacific Ocean is locking in one of the…
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What’s Good About Monotheism, Again? What Part Of It Is Worth Treasuring And Rooting For? And Why, Exactly, Is God Always Gendered Male?

Robbed, killed, raped, enslaved–all in the name of God. Ain’t monotheism grand?

ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.
NYTIMES.COM|BY ELIZA GRISWOLD [Article appeared in the NYT July 22, 2015]
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Has Darwin Put Adam And Eve In Checkmate?

The problem. Here’s the reality: Darwin upended special creation, leaving basically just one plausible chess move to anyone who accepts evolution and posits a literal Adam and Eve: the miraculous insertion of a soul into an already evolved species of animal (perhaps Homo heidelbergensis).

Without the special creation of our biological species, one needs to posit the special creation of souls–souls that enter the world via an already evolved species. This means at least two miraculous births–from two separate animal mothers.

Put another way, there must be a soulless hominid Mary and a soulless hominid Elizabeth of the Stone Age, and one has to give birth to Adam, the other to Eve–creating the first couple with actual human souls (miraculously placed there, presumably, by God).

Who will Cain and Abel marry? Once you’ve got Adam and Eve and their offspring going, there’s still another problem. You’ve got the non-souled, native population to deal with. They either have to be displaced or assimilated by interbreeding.

Yes, that means bestiality.

If you’re going to trace all of humanity today, and original sin, to a first couple, then Adam and Eve’s soul mutation had to spread somehow through an already existing population of non-souled hominids (exactly the way a biological mutation spreads through a population–it starts with one and works its way out to the whole group).

But now things are getting quite complicated.

Drop evolution and return to biblical literalism? By contrast with the messiness of evolution, special creation is simple. It starts everything with two (two lions, two people, etc.). It doesn’t cloud up the boundaries between species, and doesn’t set ancestry along a continuum (as evolution does). God snaps his fingers, shapes dirt, or says abracadabra, and there things are. Easy. Magic. No mixing. No hybridity. No fuss.

God rests on the seventh day, everything is in its place, and it’s all good.

But with evolution, all is restlessness, mixing, competing goods, and ongoing negotiation–akin to democracy. No rest for the wicked. Life starts with the first cell that divided three billion years ago–and, like Lot’s wife, it never really looks back. Lineages from that point forward are along a continuum (species divisions along the same lineage are for our convenience).

And with messy evolution, species populations almost never bottleneck at two, then recover again. Ours certainly never did (if contemporary geneticists are to be believed).

A sharp break with the past. So for both evolution and the Adam and Eve thesis to go together, the soul mutation has to be treated in a way that no single biological mutation is treated: as the defining event separating one species from another.

Again, this sort of dramatic break between the parents of Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve themselves, is necessary only because Darwin threw a wrench into the special creation thesis. In nature, a single mutation spreads through a population, but geneticists don’t, from that single mutation, identify a new species from it.

Geneticists tend to look for the build-up of a lot of mutations in a population as a whole before saying, “We’ve got a new species here.” Because evolutionary lineages are, in truth, along a continuum, these scientific declarations are judgment calls; designation for our convenience, not objective demarcations in nature.

So, according to geneticists, the truth is this: there was no first human–or first human couple. (See the video at the end of this post for an explanation of this.) There was, instead, a lot of spreading around of mutations among a diverse breeding population–never just two–and we, the people living today, are the most recent iteration of that large group process.

Put another way, even if each mutation started with only one individual, each species itself–including the human species–is the product of a pool of mutations derived from many individuals, not just one (or an Adam and Eve couple).

So if a person is going to define Adam and Eve–because of a single mutation, the soul mutation–as a different species from their hominid parents, and that mutation is going to spread, then we’re talking about displacement or assimilation of soulless hominids by interbreeding with the souled. Which, again, means bestiality.

Breaking the spell. If you don’t regard Adam and Eve’s single and miraculous soul mutation as sufficient to mark a new species, then you’re talking about Adam and Eve as just another single point variation within the same species, and this won’t do for biblical literalists and traditionalists.

So Darwin and contemporary geneticists have got those committed to a literal Adam and Eve boxed into taking positions that are difficult to defend.

But how about just breaking the spell of literalism altogether, denying that Adam and Eve ever existed? You can do this by simply treating the creation stories in Genesis as campfire etiological narratives. This is what most naturally fits the evidence.

But going with what most naturally fits the evidence also means giving up on original sin and Jesus as the second Adam. This, arguably, constitutes the end of traditional Christianity itself. So allegorical interpretation takes time to get used to. Galileo also had a simpler theory–in his case, surrounding the heavens—but had to wait, while under house arrest, on his church to play catch-up. “Your idea works in practice, but what about in theory?” Rome wasn’t built in a day–nor fundamentalist forms of religion dismantled.

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Genesis vs. Evolution–with Edward Feser to Religion’s Rescue!

The cake God bakes. In Genesis, to get a community with souls, God has a simple recipe. He:

  • spends six days making heaven and earth
  • takes inorganic matter–dust–from the newly created ground
  • forms the dust into a man and places him in a garden
  • fashions the woman from one of the man’s ribs
  • pulls her, as if from an oven, out of the body of the man and places her in the same garden
  • breathes into both of them the breath of life

Whoomp! There it is! A man, a woman, two souls–and a Mesopotamian garden to get chucked out of for sin. Human beings cool and ready to serve–and with the sexual equipment for making more offspring with the soul mutation. From the first couple, you get the ensouled human community we see today.

That’s Occam’s razor, baby.

But then science comes along.

God’s cake collapses. Scientists have discovered that God didn’t bake up humans the way the author of Genesis imagined. They tell us that humans came from organic matter (flesh), not inorganic matter (dust). They say that the very carbon atoms of which humans are made required the birth and death of stars to produce, and that took a long time. And once Earth had organic matter, it took even more time for the organic matter to organize itself into hominid forms (roughly three billion years). And when those hominids finally appeared, they didn’t exist in Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but in Africa.

So that’s three strikes against Genesis. The amount of time to create a human is wrong, there was no direct creation of the first man from inorganic matter, and the first man and woman didn’t get their start out of Mesopotamia.

Oh, and our first ancestors, according to scientists, were black Africans, not lighter-colored Mesopotamians or Europeans (as routinely depicted in racist religious art).

But although that’s now more than three strikes against the author of Genesis, let’s keep the batter up there for a bit longer.

Here comes the next pitch.

Our species has never bottlenecked down to two individuals. Geneticists tell us that the human genetic diversity on planet Earth today is not derived from a single couple that had sex together, say, 200,000 years ago. They derive instead from mitochondrial Eve and genetic Adam–two Africans who never actually lived at the same time, and therefore never met. The human population responsible for the diversity among humans that we see today has never bottlenecked down to two parents.

Now that’s yet another pretty dramatic strike for Genesis. Retire the story? Are we done? Well, we can’t be done, because now we’re talking about Jesus.


That last strike threatens the whole infrastructure of Christianity. Judaism can endure that last strike, but Christianity can’t because, if there is no first couple in a garden somewhere, there can be no first act of disobedience–no original sin. If you don’t have Adam, Eve, and original sin, you don’t need the second Adam to pay the debt for that original sin.

The second Adam being Jesus.


Enter the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser to pinch hit for the faltering writer of Genesis.

The thesis Feser endorses for saving Adam and Eve. Writing at his blog, Feser offers up an idea that he thinks just might save the day for Adam and Eve. Here it is: Maybe, just maybe, Homo sapiens came about exactly as geneticists tell us, via evolution, but the God of history–Jesus–hopped directly into the evolutionary process at the last crucial moment, marking our species’ beginning by inserting souls into two non-humans!


I kid you not. That’s the proposal that Feser takes seriously. The African hominids who were ancestral to our species didn’t have souls, but two of their offspring did–the first humans, which we call Adam and Eve. They were the first ensouled hominids, courtesy of the direct intervention of God into history.

That’s how Feser saves Genesis and original sin. In other words, the very, very last step in the evolution of our species from soulless hominids entailed a deus ex machina–God arriving out of the blue, from the rafters of the cosmic stage, to do something surprising and magical: put souls into two naked, upright walking apes, one male, the other female.

But this still doesn’t account for the genetic diversity of our species according to geneticists (once again, our species, in its evolution, never bottlenecked down to two organisms), so how does Feser solve that part of the equation?

Bestiality. Feser posits–hold your seat here–that the new, soul-filled couple’s children fucked the soulless upright apes living in their midst, bearing offspring with them. This is how the soul mutation spread. One act of bestiality at a time.

Now, hybridity is not unknown to evolutionary anthropologists, but not to spread souls. Feser proposes a thoroughly new twist on human origins.

The human soul mutation spread until there were no longer any soulless naked apes left–only ensouled naked apes–which would be us.

I’m not making this up.

So here we are. Every human being living today has an eternal soul (according to Feser). Our soulless hominid ancestors, as with the fate of all soulless beasts, are long gone. They will never be resurrected–but we will because we have the soul mutation; we go on after death. But, of course, this is a double-edged sword: we’ll either end up living forever in heaven with Jesus, or burning forever in hell with Satan.

Aren’t we lucky to have inherited the soul mutation?

And isn’t Jesus lucky as well–lucky to have Feser, that is? Jesus, after all, not only saves us, but Feser saves him. With Adam and Eve saved (intellectually), original sin can be saved (intellectually), and Jesus–the Second Adam–can be saved (intellectually).

What a happy ending! A home run in the bottom of the 9th for Professor Feser! It’s logically possible, after all. Geneticists can’t disprove the bestiality thesis for spreading souls, nor the insertion of souls in two hominids by God. Souls, after all, can’t be measured. And that’s all the religious believer–determined to believe absent evidence–really needs to declare a win–and carry on with business as usual.

But my question is: why would anyone want to win in this way? Why not just abandon a convoluted thesis? Once you have to take such a torturous route to maintain a thesis, isn’t that the moment you at least start thinking about letting it go?

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Albert Mohler Calls Closeted Atheist Clergy “Charlatans and Cowards”

Who’s being the coward here? Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an unapologetic young Earth creationist, plays rough with secretly atheist clergy members who have talked in confidence to Daniel Dennett’s The Clergy Project, writing at his blog the following:

The Clergy Project is a magnet for charlatans and cowards who, by their own admission, openly lie to their congregations, hide behind beliefs they do not hold, make common cause with atheists, and still retain their positions and salaries.

Methinks Mohler here doth protest too much, for isn’t it also cowardice that drives the believing clergyman to sublimate, by a leap of faith, an honest confrontation with his own doubts? Additionally, isn’t it charlatanism for a clergyman to then enter the pulpit on a weekend morning, and know that what he says may not be true, and yet he says it (with the confidence of faith) anyway? Mark Twain famously wrote that “faith is believing things you know ain’t so.”

So faith isn’t being brave, it’s being in denial. It’s the let’s pretend game. Let’s pretend we know things we don’t–and pass that off as knowledge shared with courage.

But acting like you have knowledge and courage isn’t the same as actually having knowledge and courage. It’s playing the confidence man–the charlatan–the very thing Mohler accuses the atheist clergyman of being.

A double-bind on atheist clergymen (and women). Let’s give closeted atheist clergy their due. They’re in pain, and the Clergy Project gives them a place where they can talk in private about their conflicted lives. The clergy member who makes use of the Clergy Project is at least admitting her inner truth to someone somewhere. She’s at least not practicing self deception and cognitive dissonance (like so many of her believing colleagues). It’s a first step.

And think of the callous logic of Mohler’s position. He’s basically saying that once you’ve committed yourself intellectually and vocationally to the ministry, you can’t be like Lot’s wife and start looking back. You’ve got to just keep plowing forward in faith, perhaps for decades, and then, if you find yourself losing your beliefs, you’ve got to cut bait and get out. There’s no middle ground to negotiate, only either/or, black or white.

Put another way: Get with the program, stay with the program, don’t doubt the program. That’s Mohler’s alternative to the Clergy Project.

And if you’re going to be a Judas, what you do, do quickly. This means coming out all at once to friends, family members, and one’s supervisors within your religious organization, and walking away, abandoning your source of income (which may be supporting kids in college, etc.).

How many people are really capable of such a traumatic bridge-burning gesture? Probably only very few.

Thus Mohler, by laying the scarlet letter C (for cowardice; for charlatan) on those who contact the Clergy Project, is putting his fellow clerical colleagues in a double-bind: if you doubt your vocation, and secretly contact Dennett’s group, you’re a coward; if you don’t talk to Dennett’s group, and your doubts persist, you’re expected to man-up, confess your sin to everybody of significance to you, and hit-the-road into the secular wilderness, bereft of support.

Call them Ishmael. So if you’re a member of the clergy, you’ve been forewarned. Confess your doubts to unbelievers, and you will not get sympathy or emotional support of any kind from your clerical colleagues. Choose ye this day which team ye are on. Here’s Mohler in the same blog post:

Pernicious doubt leads to unfaithfulness, unbelief, skepticism, cynicism, and despair. Christians — ministers or otherwise — who are struggling with doubt, need to seek help from the faithful, not the faithless.

Pernicious doubt. Did you catch that? Doubt is framed by Mohler as something that causes subtle harm; it’s not a positive virtue. It’s something to be tamped down. If you’re going to get sympathy for your doubt, you have to bring it to your fellow clergymen; you’ve got to keep it in the guild, and your intent must be to kill the infant of doubt in its cradle. It’s Damian; it’s Rosemary’s Baby.

But to treat doubt in this way means the objective truth doesn’t really matter, for doubt leads humans to the truth. Doubt is the bloodhound of truth; the seeker-of-truth’s best friend. Mohler is thus giving his fellow clergymen very narrow parameters for their doubts to chase the truth. They must send forth their doubts in such a way that: (1) institutional religion is not harmed in reputation; and (2) confirmation bias toward one’s religious faith remains in tact. The bloodhound of doubt must pass through “the faithful, not the faithless.”

Which may not get you to the truth at all.

Doubting, Thomas? At the end of his essay, Mohler puts on a brave face as to what the Clergy Project means for religion: “Christianity has little to fear from the Clergy Project. Its website reveals it to be a toothless tiger that will attract media attention, and that is about all.”

And as for squishy liberal members of the clergy who don’t preach red meat superstitions (like a literal Noah’s ark and the rapture) and orthodox doctrines (like Jesus’ virgin birth and physical resurrection), Mohler puts them all on notice as well, writing in the last sentence of his essay the following: “The greater danger to the church is a reduction in doctrine that leaves atheism hard to distinguish from belief.”

Got that, liberal doubting Thomases? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.

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Half Dome On Fire–Or Maybe Just Clouds? And Is The Photographer Who Caught The Image Skillful, Or Just Lucky?

Half Dome in Yosemite isn’t really on fire here, it’s just a cloud being hit by sunlight, but I like this photo because it: (1) illustrates aspect seeing (as in psychology textbooks, where the eye can’t decide if it’s looking at a vase or two faces); and (2) raises the issue of chance in photography. If enduring photographs outside of the studio are contingent on lucky captures, can they still be considered art? If you take 5,000 photos, and one of them is as good as, say, a photo by Vivian Maier, do you then get to send it to an exhibit and, on having it accepted for display, declare yourself a photographic artist? Does it matter that Gary Winogrand took thousands of photos for each one of his lasting images? How much of what he achieved should we attribute to skill and genius, and how much to persistence, angle practice, obsession–and just plain dumb luck?

Austin Jenanyan, a 20-year-old photographer, was in the right place at the right time to capture an image that makes Half Dome only look like it’s on fire.
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Republican Congressmen Want Confederate Flags Displayed On Federal Land

The Republicans’ ongoing racism problem. Even after what just played out over the Confederate flag in South Carolina, there are now racist Republican Congressmen–Congressmen!–who want to shift the battle to Congress. They want Confederate flags displayed on federal lands. Wow. And at cemeteries. Cemeteries.

That is so unpatriotic, disrespectful, and racist. I don’t even know what to say. Do they wish Lincoln had lost the Civil War?

Party leaders yanked a bill amid a storm of protest over an amendment that would have allowed Confederate flags at federal cemeteries.
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From A Lion Behind A Bush To God Behind The Oz Curtain: The Evolution Of God Belief

What is the relation between God belief and ignorance? I have a colleague in the science department at my college who said this to me yesterday (I’m paraphrasing): “I’m less sympathetic to the young Earth creationist of today than the one from, say, four hundred years ago because the latter was simply in ignorance, but the former is in willful ignorance.”

I thought this was a wonderfully sharp distinction, and it got me to thinking: what is the relation between ignorance and religion generally?

Hyperactive agent detection and God. Three things that evolutionary psychologists tell us are the following: (1) as well as being integrated, the brain is also modular, and among its modules is an agent detection system; (2) natural selection works by selecting among variations in organisms along a continuum, which means that different people have evolved different set points for their agent detection systems (some are more hyperactive in detecting agents in phenomena than others); and (3) the brain’s agent detection system is generally biased by natural selection toward the hyperactive side of the continuum (it tends to be better to assume that a rustling in a bush might be a large cat, like a lion, and be anxious about it, even if it’s usually just the wind).

So agent detection systems that are biased toward assuming potentially threatening agents are behind just about everything may account in some significant measure for the evolution of religion, conspiracy belief, and superstition generally.

God belief and over-arching conspiracy theories are obvious examples of an overactive agent imagination, for they unify our agent detection proclivities at the grandest scale. They are the ultimate superstitions; the last superstitions; all superstitions rolled up into One. If it’s not God, it’s the Illuminati or the Bilderbergers. Paranoia is next to godliness.

Perhaps this is why Pascal’s Wager is such a pervasive and effective evangelism tool: in your present state of ignorance, you’ve got a lot to lose. Even if there are only hints that God might exist, you better believe–just in case. You don’t want to end up in hell, do you?

This appeal exploits and hijacks to religious ends one’s hyperactive agent detection complex, which has always been a form of fire insurance.

From ignorance to knowledge. If a bush rustles, we might approach it with caution, but once we’ve investigated, and find there is no large predator behind it, we have moved from ignorance to knowledge. Our hyperactive agent detection system initially biased our approach to the bush when we were in a state of ignorance and anxiety, but it can now stand down. When we investigate, we learn what is in fact the case, and we no longer are in need of engaging our agent detection system on that particular matter.

Something like this is what has happened to us collectively, within global culture, over the past 400 years (since the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that accompanied it). When we were in broad ignorance concerning the nature of the world, religion and superstition were the sources for our first theses about it, and these theses were grounded in hyperactive agent detection. There were presumed to be devils, gods, angels, ghosts, and systems set in place by divine agents–and these were lurking behind all that we saw.

We are no longer in ignorance.

That means we can now see how far our pre-scientific era religious and superstitious theses veer from reality. And it isn’t pretty.

Wind things and contingent things vs. agent things and conspiracy things. Because religion and superstition have had such an atrocious explanatory track record, we now tend, in the 21st century, to make science our go to source for our first theses concerning what’s going on around us. This isn’t “scientism,” it’s pragmatism; it’s the habit of skepticism. We have science now. There are many things on which we no longer have to speculate. We know. And where we don’t know, we’re skeptical of supernatural agent explanations because they’ve failed so spectacularly in the past. They’ve always brought us to a dead end.

So if we tend to cling to agent detection explanations even after scientists have discovered more “wind things” than “agent things” at work behind natural objects–and historians have discovered more “contingent things” than “conspiracy things” behind history–then we are being superstitious–and willingly so. We’re ignoring what science and historiography have worked out over the past four centuries.

Put another way, no reasonable person can pretend to unspill the milk of the scientific revolution. We have moved from innocence to experience. And this brings us to intellectual religion–the last refuge for superstition.

Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my! Science has not yet looked behind all of our anxious bushes yet, and so supernatural agent detection theories frequently take on the form of intellectual religion, retreating ever further to the boundaries of our knowledge. Intellectual religionists can always say, “Of course we no longer believe in Noah’s ark on Ararat, and Adam and Eve in a garden in Mesopotamia, but beneath it all is still a supernatural agent, beyond empirical access. This is the Ultimate Agent: a personal, all-knowing designer God who makes everything work to his purposes (there are no accidents). This Being wants our absolute submission and obedience.”

But we don’t really know this, and if history is any indication, it’s probably an incorrect thesis. (And notice how similar the all-knowing and controlling God thesis is to the all-knowing and controlling Bilderberger thesis.)

So I submit that we believe in God (the last superstition) because we were once afraid of lions. The dreaded lion in the bush has become, in the 21st century, God behind the Oz curtain. Both are the targets of an evolved and hyperactive agent detection system born of ignorance and fear.

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Justice Antonin Scalia Believes In Hell And The Devil–But Not Gays And Atheists

At Salon, Jeffrey Taylor’s summary of Antonin Scalia’s interview with New York magazine caught me for a loop. The man is seriously superstitious, living in a demon haunted world:

[Jennifer] Senior interviewed Scalia for her magazine. She asked for his opinion of the pope. Scalia reacted with untoward prickliness, saying he would not “run down … the Vicar of Christ.” Nothing surprising, really. A Reagan-era appointee, Scalia has long been known for his staunch Roman Catholicism.

But then the interview took a comic, almost sinister turn.  Senior asked Scalia about homosexuality. Though professing to be “not a hater of homosexuals at all,” he said that he accepted “Catholic teaching that it’s wrong.” She pressed him to evaluate how such a position will look to people 50 years from now. He responded, “I have never been custodian of my legacy. When I’m dead and gone, I’ll either be sublimely happy or terribly unhappy.”

“You believe in heaven and hell?”

“Oh, of course I do. Don’t you believe in heaven and hell?”

No, Senior answered, she did not. Scalia then proffered an entirely serious aside about Judas Iscariot’s current location in the hereafter, prompting an uncomfortable Senior to remark, “Can we talk about your drafting process?”

No. […] He leaned toward her and whispered, surely with eyes ablaze, “I even believe in the Devil  …  he’s a real person.”

And, in the same interview, here’s Scalia on demonic possession and atheists:

[Senior asked,] “Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?”

Scalia replied, “You know, it is curious.  In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things.  He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot.  And that doesn’t happen very much anymore …  because he’s smart.”  Scalia attributed the spread of atheism to Satan, who was “getting people not to believe in him or in God.  He’s much more successful that way.” Satan had, in Scalia’s estimation, become “wilier,” which explained “why there’s not demonic possession all over the place.”

Did you catch that last sentence? By Scalia’s estimation, if you’re not demonically possessed, or being harassed by devils a la a Bruegel or Bosch painting, thank an atheist or agnostic. It appears that we keep devils at bay.

How so? Well, Scalia’s comment could be read in a number of ways. One is that we agnostics and atheists, in our growing legions, are “wilier” than devils, and so Satan doesn’t even need to use devils anymore to get his evil work done.

But I prefer a second reading: atheists and agnostics keep devils at bay by being skeptical of them. The demon-haunted world retreats under the harsh glare of scientific and investigative scrutiny. But for these, says Scalia, “demonic possession” would be “all over the place.”

So Satan, no longer able to cast convincing spells of miracle, mystery, and authority over people anymore, has been forced to become more cunning (that is, less out in the open; less obviously real).

Either way, we can thank agnostics, atheists, scientists, and skeptics for driving the demon-haunted into the shadows.

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Aquinas and Superstition: Thomist Philosopher Edward Feser Is An Aquinastitionist. What Is That?

Aquinastition. When you mix Aquinas with superstition you get what I’ll call Aquinastition.

So an Aquinastitionist is an intellectual Thomist who makes apologies for religious superstition.

Thomist philosopher Edward Feser is an example, as displayed in his recent essay, “Religion and Superstition,” in The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy (2015).

Edward Feser’s Thomistic defense of religious superstition. Perhaps the most revealing part of Feser’s essay is when he quotes Hayek endorsing the idea that it’s okay to believe things that have not “been demonstrated to be true.” This is followed not many sentences later with Feser explicitly writing this: “Certain roles and practices may have benefits that we cannot see.”

What are the sorts of religious superstitions that win Feser’s seal of approval? Here are some of them:

  • We may reasonably owe “reverence or dulia” to “angels and saints.”
  • False conceptions of the one true God do not constitute superstition, as with those who believe in “anthropocentric ‘theistic personalism'” (such as Alvin Plantinga), and those who “may think of Him as an old man with a long white beard.”
  • Quoting The Catholic Encyclopedia, Feser endorses the view that people who worshiped “the ‘false gods’ of the heathen” may have been worshiping “the only true God they knew,” and so their impulse was rightly directed to the divine–and therefore, to that extent, they were not engaging in superstition.
  • Belief that prayer and the sacraments are efficacious, and that miracles, angels, and devils “cause unusual events to occur” are not superstitious beliefs.
  • Belief in “disembodied souls” is not superstitious, but “fully intelligible.”

Feser and atheism. So what is superstitious? Atheism. It’s “the last superstition” (which is also the title of Feser’s book attacking atheism). Why? Because to believe that there are things not fully “intelligible through and through” is to be superstitious.

So long as you believe that God is intelligible through and through, and that God’s ways are intelligible through and through (though appearing mysterious to our feeble intellects), then you’re not superstitious.

Put another way, when atheists conclude that maybe some things just happen by accident (shit happens), or exist as brute facts (as with the idea that matter and the laws of nature have no particular cause, but just have always existed), then these atheists are, for Feser, engaged in the height of superstition.

All things happen to an intelligible purpose–God’s purposes. Even the Holocaust (presumably).

Other superstitions Feser targets. Who else is superstitious besides atheists, according to Feser’s essay? These would include those who conjure devils for purposes of power, astrologers, believers in extraterrestrials, conspiracy theorists, and alternative medicine practitioners.

But these, of course, have their analogs among religionists (faith healers for alternative medicine practitioners; prophets for soothsayers; those who hope Jesus will one day fly down from the sky for those who hope UFOs will one day fly down from the sky, etc.). But Feser doesn’t draw these parallels. For Feser, religious believers who focus on the one true God are not superstitious.

Why? Because their hearts are in the right place, and their intentions are directed at the right object. For Feser, the right orientation is all (trust in God and institutional religious authorities vs. fear of the unknown; piety vs. impiety; faith vs. doubt; belief in–if not demonstration of–intelligibility vs. unintelligibly, etc.).

So Feser wants to decouple “true religion”–the sort of religion of which Feser approves–from superstition.

And if his essay doesn’t convince you to separate religion from superstition, Feser at least wants the reader to cut some slack to the Dark Ages. In the last sentence of his essay, he quotes Peter Dendle as writing the following: “There is little sense in singling out the Middle Ages, then, as a time of especially pronounced or absurd superstition.”

In other words, traditional religion is not superstition, and, well, if you say it is, it’s certainly no worse than the superstitions that circulate in non-religious circles today.

Thus an Aquinastitionist like Feser might say he opposes all superstition, but he actually makes intellectual excuses and exceptions for superstition—specifically, religious superstition. I think it’s undeniable that this is what Feser does in his essay; he carves out a space for distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable superstition.

The descent into superstition. So we’ve got two sorts of persons here. The first is the epistemically cautious theist interested in Aristotle and Aquinas. This is the philosophically oriented person who is persuaded by the cosmological argument for a First Being’s existence, and leaves it at that.

Aristotle, for example, rejected atomism and surmised that there must be some sort of Unmoved Mover who got the cosmic ball rolling, but he attached no particular superstitious beliefs or behaviors to that conclusion.

But then there is the Aquinastitionist. This is the philosophically oriented person persuaded by Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics, but who defends certain forms of religious superstition as good. She or he may even be a practitioner of religious superstition—and thus a practitioner of Aquinastition—and therefore Aquinastitious.

The Silly Aquinastitionist. But there’s a third person here, which I’ll name the Silly Aquinastitionist. Think Monty Python’s silly walk skit; think Stevie Wonder’s song, “Superstition.” This person, to echo a phrase from that song, is very superstitious.

The Silly Aquinastitionist accepts Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics, believes in various religious superstitions, and combines these with still other forms of superstition (conspiracy theories, UFOs, etc.).

In other words, the Silly Aquinastitionist is a full-on practitioner of Silly Aquinastition. She (or he) is the Caitlyn Jenner of Aquinastitionists—as far out and imaginative as you can push Aquinastition. If there’s a bead to finger, she’s there. If there’s a ring or foot to kiss or rub for luck, yes! Church on Sunday, Alex Jones on Monday.

Umberto Eco, by the way, called the mixing of authoritarian religious traditionalism with conspiracy theories and the occult a symptom of what he coined Ur-Fascism.

Miracle, mystery, and authority combined with Aquinas can cascade into a variety of superstitions.

A question for Graham Oppy. The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Religious Philosophy, in which Feser’s essay appears, was edited by the Australian philosopher Graham Oppy, an atheist whose most recent book, The Best Arguments against God (Palgrave 2013), defends naturalism. My questions for Graham is the following: Would you personally make the sorts of distinctions that Feser does between religious superstition and superstition generally–and what do you make of Feser’s classing of atheism among the superstitions?

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The “Little Missionary”: A Child Healer in Brazil

Six years old. She’s called the “Little Missionary,” and the money is rolling in. Religion exploiting children. Is this a bug or a feature?

Poverty and technology contribute to boom of Pentecostalism in predominantly Catholic country
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Epidurals and Pains in Childbirth: Why Do Arguments Start and Stop Where They Do?

People often claim that they’re appealing to reason in argumentation, but the way they reason frequently reveals more about them than the truth.

Put another way, an argument often says more about your inward passions, sensibilities, and imaginative world than what’s actually going on in the external world (a.k.a “reality”).

Put yet another way, you think you’re Socrates when you’re actually Don Quixote tilting at contingent windmills. What you take to be your lithe and biting snake of reason is actually a rope of fantasy.

As the Hindus put it, you’ve mistaken a rope for a snake.

So reason, it might be argued, is more akin to poetry than a tool for getting at the truth of matters. It’s a framing gesture; a way of aspect seeing; a way of locating your tribe (those who agree with you). It’s not (usually) a device for actually getting at the objective truth of things–or at least, if it achieves this, it does so by chance or only intermittently.

The physicist Stephen Hawking thinks we’re doing pretty good if we can arrive at what he calls “model dependent realism.” In other words, where our models match what seems to be going on in the world around us, and they work for our purposes, that’s about as close to “the ultimate truth” as we’re ever likely to get.

So reason is a form of play.

In deconstructing a person’s claim to reason, therefore, it’s thought provoking to think about the actual play that is at work; to ask a simple question: Why did this or that person start her argument where she did and stop it where she did?

Let’s use the example of epidural injections into the spine: is it moral for a woman to get these sorts of injections to dodge pain in childbirth?

A liberal might start her reflection on this by eliminating some distinctions, which seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do: What’s the moral difference between using a condom during sex, using a sugar substitute while drinking coffee, and getting an epidural during childbirth? In each case, the body’s natural agendas and inclinations are being hijacked by technology to avoid an unwanted outcome (pregnancy, weight gain, pain).

This seems like a reasonable line of appeal–if you’re okay with the first two, you should be okay with the third–but it also leads to a liberal conclusion: epidurals are morally no worse than deploying sugar substitutes.


But how might a conservative argue?

Let’s take, for instance, the medieval religious conservative, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). How might he have reasoned about epidurals?

He probably would have started his reasoning with the Bible–and a rhetorical question: Do you suppose, after reading Genesis 3 (God’s curse on Eve and her female descendants after she ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is pain in childbirth), that God would approve of women avoiding His divine curse?

Seven hundred years after Aquinas’ death, I think he would have been shocked–shocked!–to learn of the subversion of God’s natural law by contemporary women–a natural law explicitly spelled out in Genesis as divine punishment. Women are supposed to suffer in childbirth–Aquinas would say. It’s natural. It’s just. They’re sinners. It reminds them of the consequences of sin.

In addition to the biblical argument, Aquinas might have also offered the following syllogism: If God had wanted women’s pelvises to be broader to let babies with big heads come out easier, he would have made them that way. God didn’t make them that way. Therefore, God wants women to experience pain in childbirth.

Again, perfectly logical. In a syllogism, if the two premises are true, the conclusion is certain.

And, again, how convenient. A conservative uses reason to reach (surprise!) a conservative conclusion.

So this is why I say that much of what passes for reason is desire. The desire to start and the desire to stop.

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Does Time Exist? Einstein, Julian Barbour, Lee Smolin, Some Greek Philosophers–And The New Data From The NASA Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope

Julian Barbour, Albert Einstein, and Parmenides vs. Anaximander and Lee Smolin. Theoretical physicist, Julian Barbour, believes that what we experience as time passing actually consists of frozen moments of space-time in relation to one another (akin to a flip book). It feels as if time is passing, but like cinema film, past, present, and future, to borrow a phrase from Jacques Derrida, “always already” exist.

Albert Einstein once wrote that “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubborn, persistent illusion,” and the pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides, also believed time to be an illusion, a conclusion he derived from logic. Being can’t pass into the state of nothing on its way to becoming something else, for nothing can come of nothing. Therefore, becoming must not occur. Parmenides’ student, Zeno, defended his teacher’s position with a famous argument: one can imagine slicing space infinitely fine, and so any object, to go from point A to point B, would have to pass through an infinite series. This can’t happen, so movement in time must be some sort of illusion. Everything is at rest; nothing really moves; all moments are eternal. Past, present, and future are right now. Think block universe. 

Poetic, perhaps, and even a bit creepy–but is it true?

A different pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander, thought not. In his On Nature, quoted at the beginning of Lee Smolin’s book, Time Reborn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013), he wrote, “All things originate from one another, and vanish into one another according to necessity […] in conformity with the order of time.”

The world, in other words, is on fire, baby. Time is not an emperor with no clothes, but akin to the burning bush in Exodus: a god wearing flames.

Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin agrees with Anaximander, and the idea of time as fire is poetic, if a bit nervy–but who’s right?

Can science call this one decisively?

Smolin has long thought yes; that the data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope would provide a smoking gun in favor of the idea that time is really real, not just an emergent property out of more fundamental principles. How so? By showing the speed of light is not constant when measured over vast distances (ten billion light years), and therefore that time isn’t really relative to the motion of the observer. In other words, by proving Einstein’s theory of relativity wrong.

Put another way, Einstein says gravity slows time, not light. Smolin says if we can set photons to racing over sufficiently vast distances, and measure them, we’d find that, in fact, gravity slows light, not time. Time is constant, not light.

Lee Smolin’s Prediction. For Smolin, time is special. It is universal, not local. It might appear locally to us to be relative, but across the cosmos, and at the quantum level, time is not ultimately dependent on the speed observers are moving. It is not an emergent property of space, the laws of physics, and matter-in-motion, but fundamental. Instead, it is space, the laws of physics, and matter-in-motion that derive from time; it is they that are the emergent properties. Indeed, time is the only thing that is fundamental. Not God, not dumb luck, not the infinite multiverse. The buck stops for Smolin with time.

So Smolin has long believed that Einstein’s theory, in the final analysis, is wrong about the speed of light being constant, and therefore about the relativity of time in relation to an observer’s motion. There is a substrate to reality in which everything that exists, exists now, and is passing out of this burning moment into another moment at the same instant.

Here’s Smolin, writing all the way back in 2003 (which may no longer exist, if Smolin is correct):

Some of the effects predicted by the theory [of quantum loop gravity, a theory Smolin promoted at the time] appear to be in conflict with one of the principles of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the theory that says that the speed of light is a universal constant. […] [T]he theory [of quantum loop gravity] predicts that the speed of light has a small dependence on energy. Photons of higher energy travel slightly slower than low-energy photons. The effect is very small, but it amplifies over time.

In other words, if Einstein is right, low-energy and high-energy photons, from a great distance (again, ten billion light years), will basically reach NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope at the same time. If they don’t; if the low-energy photons lag a bit, then the speed of light isn’t constant and time isn’t relative, but fundamental. Here’s Smolin again:

Two photons produced by a gamma-ray burst 10 billion years ago, one redder and one bluer, should arrive on Earth at slightly different times. The time delay predicted by the theory is large enough to be detectable by a new gamma-ray observatory called GLAST (for Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope), which is scheduled for launch into orbit in 2006. We very much look forward to the announcement of the results, as they will be testing a prediction of a quantum theory of gravity.

When Smolin wrote this back in 2003, he speculated on the consequences of any detection of laggard photons by the space telescope:

A very exciting question we are now wrestling with is, How drastically shall we be forced to modify Einstein’s special theory of relativity if the predicted effect is observed? The most severe possibility is that the principle of relativity simply fails. The principle of relativity basically means that velocity is relative and there is no absolute meaning to being at rest. To contradict this would mean that after all there is a preferred notion of rest in the universe. This, in turn, would mean that velocity and speed are absolute quantities. It would reverse 400 years of physics and take us back before Galileo enunciated the principle that velocity is relative. While the principle may have been approximately true, we have been confronting the frightening possibility that the principle fails when quantum gravity effects are taken into account.

Drum roll, please. Well, it’s 2015, twelve years later, and the results have recently come in from the space telescope, and been digested by researchers. This is via (March 16, 2015):

One hundred years after Albert Einstein formulated the general theory of relativity, an international team has proposed another experimental proof. In a paper published today in Nature Physics, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Open University of Israel, Sapienza University of Rome, and University of Montpellier in France, describe a proof for one of the theory’s basic assumptions: the idea that all light particles, or photons, propagate at exactly the same speed.

The researchers analyzed data, obtained by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, of the arrival times of from a distant gamma-ray burst. The data showed that photons traveling for billions of years from the distant burst toward Earth all arrived within a fraction of a second of each other.

This finding indicates that the photons all moved at the same speed, even though different photons had different energies. This is one of the best measurements ever of the independence of the speed of light from the energy of the light particles.

In other words, this is Parmenides’ revenge–and Julian Barbour’s–and Einstein’s. Disturbing as the implications may be, the idea that we live in a block universe is alive and well. Time and change may indeed be stubbornly persistent illusions. Gravity really does appear to slow time, not light. It does not look like time is fundamental.

This means that when 20th century mathematician Hermann Weyl wrote the following, he may not have been far off the mark:

The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling upward along the world line of my body, does a section of the world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time.

Put another way, the speed of one’s gaze (whether “crawling” or zipping) from a particular vantage in relation to another thing, generates the illusion of becoming. All moments already exist alongside one another as a dimension in space-time. I’m curious to read what Lee Smolin makes of the latest space telescope data, but I can’t seem to locate anything by him about this online. I look forward to that.


A brief, speculative addendum on aspect seeing, Escher, and time. Weyl’s description of awareness “crawling upward along the world line of my body,” with “a section of the world” coming momentarily into awareness “as a fleeting image in space” seems curiously akin to aspect seeing (as with the goblet vs. two faces image in all introductory psychology textbooks; the figure-ground image).

The figure and ground in such an image is static and completely interdependent–you can’t have one without the other–but awareness ping-pongs back and forth between the two images as if trapped in a very simple space-time square of indecisiveness. Is it a goblet? Is it a face? Is it both? Is it neither?

What one affirms in one moment seems negated in the next.

Perhaps the cosmos combined with awareness is like this, but rather than a two-dimensional square, it’s a three or more dimensional box or bubble–a very, very large box or bubble. And because the box or bubble is vast, awareness never hits a wall to ping-pong off of, so it tumbles all in one direction (hence the illusion of time).

Think of an Escher drawing, Sky and water I (1938). The school of fish and flock of birds in the drawing are a mutually interdependent arising (to use a Buddhist phrase), and, akin to Schrodinger’s Cat, they are both there and not there depending on where attention takes hold. The fish and birds are not the same as what they emerge out of (both your brain and the drawing)–and yet, in a sense, they are. They’re not the self-same, but they’re inseparable from the viewer and each other–and are along a continuum. Whatever you affirm about either the fish or birds becomes a negation when pressed, for both are empty of an independent essence. Now there are fish, now birds–but the first now is just the flip side of the second now, and it has no independent or substantial essence. Now there’s a ghost fish. Now a ghost bird. And these are inseparable from awareness “crawling” (Weyl’s word) down the “world line” of what is.

Does this match, not just Einstein’s claim that time is “a stubborn, persistent illusion,” but the intuitions of a non-dual Buddhist like Nagarjuna or a poet like Blake? Is awareness the empty and moving image of eternity?

There is a story from the Zen tradition that goes like this: two monks view a flag blowing in the wind, raising the question of what moves. The first monk says the wind moves; the second, the flag. Their master passes, smiles, and says, “Mind moves.”

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Parallels Between Darwin and Buddha: Evolution and Dependent Origination

Buddha’s theory is Darwin’s. I had an aha moment yesterday: Buddha’s theory of suffering and its cessation can function as a trope–a metaphor–for evolution. Buddha’s insight tracks Charles Darwin’s.

Buddha was Darwin before Darwin.

Put another way, Buddha discovered how evolution works, then turned his insight into a soteriology (a path of liberation).

Dependent origination. The thing that rocked Buddha’s world–and that led him out of solitude to preach his first sermon–the Fire Sermon (“O bhikkhus, the world is on fire!”)–was the moment he realized that suffering is the result of dependent origination.

It was Buddha’s jaw-dropping moment: “Holy cow!” (he must have said to himself) “I’ve figured out how the cosmos generates its somersaults–and how to disrupt them to arrest human suffering!”

So Buddha was not just the first great evolutionary theorist, but the first Luddite, throwing a shoe into the wheel of the Great Machine; the chomping Moloch that we call evolutionary history. Yet being nonviolent, he recommended, not rage against the Machine, but contemplative distance as the method for freeing the mind from the Machine’s spell-casting imperatives.

Darwin’s insight came when he linked up his field observations with Thomas Malthus’ theory of population; Buddha’s insight came when he linked up suffering with dependent origination. Darwin was contemplating external nature, and Buddha was contemplating inner nature, but both converge on the idea that existence can be made sense of, not by appeals to gods, but by inquiring into the impersonal, interconnected, mechanistic processes of change.

Buddhism’s twelve stages of dependent origination–and evolution. You can’t get to the capstone of a pyramid without other stones in place. You’ve got to work your way from the ground up. You can’t lay the stones of the twelfth layer before the eleventh, nor the eleventh without the tenth, and so on.

So it is in Buddhism with dependent origination and suffering–with suffering as the capstone. But Buddhists present dependent origination, not with an analogy to a pyramid, but to a chain.

In Buddhism, dependent origination is likened to a twelve-linked chain. And like an ouroboros (a snake that bites its tail), this chain is formed into a bracelet, circle, or wheel–the wheel of samsara–the cycle of birth and death. Make a thorough break anywhere along the chain, and you release yourself from the wheel of samsara, and therefore from suffering. As with each step in a pyramid’s construction requiring a previous step as a condition for proceeding, you can’t have the twelfth link without the eleventh, nor the eleventh without the tenth. If you break any link along the way, you arrest the manifestation of all subsequent links.

That’s what got Buddha excited. One doesn’t have to appeal to gods to end suffering, for it’s nothing personal. In the escalating causal process that culminates in suffering, all you have to do is break a link–preferably the first one, which is called ignorance (avidya). In logic, this can be stated with s standing for suffering and i as one of the links in the chain of dependent origination: is necessary for s; not i, therefore not s.

After Darwin, we can think of the twelve linked stages of dependent origination as Buddhism’s intuitive way of describing the imperatives of mechanistic evolution–but with an eye on soteriology, not science.

Below is a succinct description of the twelve links–with a Darwinian spin on each of them. Once you see that evolution shadows the twelve stages of dependent origination, it becomes quite easy to actually remember them. At minimum, even if you think I’m straining the analogy between Darwin and the Buddha, I think you’ll agree that evolution can nevertheless function as a mnemonic device for learning the stages themselves.

(1) Samsara is birthed out of ignorance of our non-dual nature. The wheel of samsara, and therefore of suffering (dukkha) begins to spin at the moment that what’s in and what’s out gets distinguished. Once you get an essential self over here and the rest of the cosmos over there, you’ve got trouble. Buddhists take aim at breaking the chain of dependent origination right at this dualistic root. If there’s a Buddhist version of the biblical fall, it’s here. The instant you start thinking–“I’m here, you’re over there”–you’re pretty much done for. Buddhists call this sort of dualistic thinking the beginning of ignorance (avidya). So in Buddhism, dukkha (suffering) and avidya (ignorance) are intimately linked. If you’re dwelling in ignorance, you’ve mistaken the self that is non-dual, empty, impersonal, contingent, impermanent, and interdependent for dual, essential, personal, permanent, and disconnected. You’ve mistaken a rope for a snake.

And once you’ve mistaken yourself to be this sort of self (a self demarcated by a skin, separate from the cosmos) you’re headed for a world of anxiety, anguish, and hurt, for now you’ve set the ongoing survival of you against the great big world that is not you.

So Buddha’s insight is that suffering begins at the point where self and nonself gets distinguished in this manner. From an evolutionary perspective, this existential fall into duality begins with the first cell. The skin of the alpha cell–its boundary layer–was the beginning of all individual troubles in the cosmos. The first time something distinguished itself from everything else (became a “self”), the wheel of samsara started to turn. The shit hit the fan.

Of course, cells don’t have minds, but we do. Though a cell functions dualistically, it isn’t thinking dualistically, but when we do, we purchase into the game of suffering and the ten thousand things, which is samsara.

(2) Ignorance of our non-dual nature is the engine of karma. Once you’ve got a stable and self protective boundary that you’re policing and pressing into the world (akin to a cell), you’ll start generating karma (action), pushing things around, and birthing new forms out of your actions–which is exactly, again, what the first cells did. They acted on their programmed prerogatives (to survive and reproduce); their actions had consequences; and those actions reverberated through time and space–birthing still more karma. The will to power, reproduction, competition, and cooperation (a decidedly mixed bag of evolution-generated karma) tumbled forward through time, by natural selection, all the way to us: a species conditioned to dualistic awareness for purposes of survival.

And this is where Buddhism shifts from an evolutionary theory of emergence (duality birthing samsara and karma, which births karmic consequences) to a soteriology (a path to liberation).

For Buddhists, liberation is liberation from the wheel of samsara. So one can transcend the samsaric wheel at this second link in the chain of dependent origination by waking up from dualistic perceptions, attitudes, and actions. If you can manage this, you’re on the path to liberation, but if not, you’re on your way to the third link in the chain of dependent origination: allowing your awareness to be overtaken by the ongoing flow of previous karma (in this case, evolutionary inertia), both personal and collective.

Will you follow the crowd, and your already existing habits? If so, move to the third link in the chain of suffering.

(3) Karma conditions awareness. Evolutionary inertia necessarily shapes human awareness. How can it not? Once the first humans evolved, they didn’t arrive on the scene as blank slates. Their awareness was not unconditioned, with all of their “doors of perception cleansed” (as Blake put it). They weren’t instinctually inclined to seeing everything as it is, interconnected and non-dual; as “eternity in an hour.” Instead, they arrived as frightened and naked primates, huddling together with the karmic baggage of past lives–the lives of their ancestors–and the genes and survival strategies that those ancestors passed on to them.

We are our ancestors’ most recent incarnation. Reincarnation, thought of in this way, can serve to naturalize Buddhist intuitions surrounding the nature of change and karma. Thanks to evolution, we don’t have to take these first intuitions surrounding reincarnation and karma literally. We can see them, 2000 years on, as tropes for an evolutionary cosmos that really has emerged out of long chains of births and deaths combined with competing survival strategies and actions that continue to have reverberating consequences down to this day.

From our contemporary understanding of natural and cultural selection, we can see that we haven’t literally experienced past lives, but that our ancestors have transmitted to us genes, ideas, and evolutionary strategies that are very good at navigating the world from the vantage of the dual–“We’re here, they’re over there; our circle of empathy starts here–and ends there.”

And this brings us back to suffering. Once human awareness enters into the three billion year stream of life’s evolution on this planet, it becomes a huge and anxious clustermuck of conceptual divisions, self-conscious competition, and alliances. The world’s living body, long at war among its biological members, brings that war to the mental world. Mental life therefore has its roots in prior genetic and environmental factors. It is this mental aspect of life, with its suffering, to which the Buddha attempted to bring therapy.

As Buddha intuited, through long chains of birth and death, we’ve come to be the beings that we are today. In bodily terms, these include such evolutionary innovations as eyes and the ability to run long distances. In mental terms, these include inclinations to things like language, art, anxiety, religion, war, and cooperation. If we were bats, we’d have the karmic baggage of our ancestral bat awareness; but we’re humans, so we’ve got the karmic baggage of our ancestral human awareness.

(4) Awareness leads to awareness of mind-and-body.  Our evolutionary heritage conditions consciousness–our awareness–to be concerned with the dual, not the non-dual–which leads, not just to the distinction between self and other, but mind and body.

(5) Mind-and-body awareness is experienced through the six sense gates. For our survival, we experience our mind-and-body complex through the six sense gates. From the body, we get the five gates of the senses (sight, taste, smell, hearing, and touch), and from the mind, we get the sixth gate: thought (which includes all of our inner states, including emotions). These gates facilitate awareness. They’re the six windows through which we can observe both things and thoughts. While practicing, for example, insight (vipassana) meditation, we might observe these with non-attachment, calmly watching shifts of sense and mind come and go.

So in vipassana meditation, if we stay with it long enough, we start to notice a pattern: that things and thoughts arise, ripen, and drift away. All things pass. Therefore, we don’t attach to them, or identify with them (not “my back aches,” but “back ache”). We observe dispassionately; we treat what enters through the gates of awareness as clouds in the sky. Not attaching to, or identifying with, what passes, cultivates wisdom. It is in the nature of things to arise, ripen, and pass away.  Vipassana counters the anxious dualisms, identifications, passions, and impulses to clinging that evolution has hardwired into our instinctual organism. We say to what comes and goes, not uh oh, or oh no, but ah so.

Our selfish genes, after all, have a very different agenda from our vipassana practice. Calm acceptance is not their concern. As long as their reproductive strategy is in force and working, they don’t care if the individual organism is agitated and suffering. Evolution has given us our six sense gates so as to navigate environments accompanied by anxiety. The six gates evolved to give awareness access to inner and outer worlds, most especially those that serve duality: “I’m an autonomous and mortal creature, ‘alone and afraid / in a world I never made.’ I’ve got to make this situation work for me. I’ve got to survive. What do I think, what do I see?”

As an organism, you’re supposed to be on the alert. It’s what your genes want you to do–to think dualistically; to police the borders. Evolution is urgent, so one way to reduce suffering is to get some distance from that urgency in the practice of things like vipassana, which, at least intermittently, counters evolutionary prerogatives by not identifying with, or reacting anxiously to, what appears at the six gates of perception.

Another way to extinguish anxious survival, aversion, and desire urgency is to close one or more of the sense gates. For example, let’s say you’re trying to avoid the suffering that comes with weight gain. You might remove leftover birthday cake from the kitchen table so that your eyes won’t fall on it when you pass by. But if you fail to remove the cake, on your next trip to the kitchen you may find yourself descending, Dante’s Inferno-like, to the next level of samsara–the sixth level.

(6) The six sense gates give rise to contact with objects of perception. Trouble here. Contact is the serpent-in-Eden moment for Buddhists: one taste of cake won’t hurt, right? But in evolutionary terms, your snake-like, writhing DNA molecules want you to obey their multi-million year build-up of karma. In response to environmental stimuli, they want you to look, smell, taste, touch, listen, think–and feel–feel!

(7) Contact generates feeling. Is sense contact with the object of your current attention pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Are you indifferent or calm in relation to the experience–or do you have strong feelings about it? We all know what the evolutionary psychology texts say about desires and aversions: they’ve evolved for survival. You’re supposed to like some things (sex, food), and not others (spiders). It’s the long ages of evolutionary karma that condition your awareness. Can’t resist lingering over the siren calls of your inheritance, inclinations, and habits? On to the eighth level.

(8) Feeling generates craving. If you’re under the spell of dualism (again, acquired from your evolutionarily inherited prerogatives), you may not have the presence of mind, despite a lot of training in meditation, to just let your feelings come and go like clouds in the sky. Once you’ve made contact and identified a thing as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, you may want more of what you like, and less of what you don’t. So the next step in the build-up to suffering is greed: you’re mad to have sex, to eat, to get your way in business, to fit in with the alphas of your tribe, to obsess. These are all potentially good things from the vantage of evolution–but not so good if you’re looking to dodge traps of suffering.

In terms of an example of contact leading to feeling, and feeling leading to craving and obsession, think of Fred MacMurray in relation to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944). Stanwyck plays the femme fatale who, once MacMurray lays eyes upon her and her braceleted ankle–that is, once he makes contact–feelings emerge, and those feelings give rise to a craving that he cannot resist. Stanwyck’s ankle bracelet is a nice symbol for the wheel of samsara and the chain of dependent origination.

(9) Craving generates grasping. Once you’re craving and obsessing, you’re scheming to push one moment away in time (the moment you don’t want) to grasp another (the moment you do want). And once you get hold of the desirable moment, you don’t want it ever to leave. You mean to shore up your position; to hold. You’re akin to a tree. Once roots are in place, you want more; you want to branch out. You’re ready to put forth leaves, extending your will to power in every direction.

It all makes perfect sense evolutionarily. If you wish to survive, you should move from the realms of contact, feeling, and craving to actions that are directed toward reaching (grasping) and conserving (holding fast to) what you take to be desirable. But in the process, you’re in danger of becoming, not an open hand, but a fist. And assuming center stage as a persona, wanting things–and acting to get what you want–you’ve entered the realm of becoming; of theatre.

(10) Grasping generates the theatre of becoming. All the world’s a stage–for evolution. The theatre of becoming is where you lay down your evolutionary gambit under the spell of your self-other duality. What will you stake your existence upon? Imagine yourself in Vegas, and you’ve put your chips on the table. You’re going for broke. A whole new world is going to swerve out of your motives and actions–for good and ill. In Buddhism, one’s private karma consists of three things: your actions, words, and intentions. What will be the produced babe of your karmic vegetation?

(11) The theatre of becoming generates births. You reap what you sow. When, out of desire, you give birth to a new thing, it means you’ve generated a fresh bell curve of arising, ripening, and rotting. In Hinduism, these are known as the three gunas–the rajasic (hot), satvic (ripe), and tamasic (the depleted; the inertial). When Jack Kerouac announced the birth of his daughter to one of his Beat friends, Gregory Corso, he got the head-turning reply, “You’ve given birth to something that will die.”

(12) Birth leads to old age and death. The things we give birth to, we want to endure–and never be separated from. But this isn’t the way the world works–and if we think it is, we’ve come full circle, Sound of Music-like, back to doh (yet another round of ignorance, dualism, and suffering). It’s at this point that the Buddha noses onto the stage, stealing a line from Dorothy Parker: “What fresh hell is this?”

Darwin’s dharma. So the Buddha as Darwin is saying, ultimately, that although karmic inertia, habit, and evolution have conditioned us to experience the world in dualistic terms, we can, with effort, get at least a glimpse of things as they actually are and have always been: non-dual and transitory. All we take for real, permanent, and separate is actually empty, impermanent, and dependent. No self has ever really been an island. No self has ever really been born–not essentially and permanently. With cleansed perception, existence is just this–Blake’s “moving image of eternity”–this now.

And now is means and ends. Buddha’s solution to the problem of mental suffering in an evolutionary cosmos–a cosmos on the move–is, first, to stop moving along with it long enough to see what’s actually going on. If you come to stillness and calm attention, it begins to dawn on you that you’ve always been empty, a mutually interdependent arising, without lack, and non-dual. You and the cosmos are one. You’ve never been two. You needn’t fear death because you’ve never been born–not, at any rate, as a separate organism.

You may witness this organism–“yourself”–and it’s very close in on your awareness, and you identify with it, but it’s not “you” up close while “the world” is out there, far away. You’re not opposed to the world–you are the world–near and far. And you’re also not the world. You’re empty of essential and self-same substance–as is the world. Whatever is, is interconnected, exactly as black needs white and being needs nothingness. It’s paradoxical, but what is, just is–and is not.

It all depends on how you look at it. You can reinforce the hard shell of yourself, or you can train to subvert your evolution and habit driven conditioning and momentum. If you practice letting go of an essentialist identity that narrates itself in only one way (“I’m a particular individual who has to hold on tight to my existing self”), then maybe, just maybe, you’ll wake up from your long nightmare of dualism (Tennyson’s description of life as “red in tooth and claw”).

Think of James Joyce writing this in Ulysses: “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

So you needn’t be an armored Apollo, but more like Proteus, the elusive god of waters, open to sea change; to metamorphosis.

A guided meditation for bringing it all together. Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’s alter ego in Ulysses, tried to wake up, and the Buddha actually did. Now you try it. Be still and quiet. Extinguish words for awhile.

Let go is Be here now.

Ultimately, everything is alright. You’re neither movement nor not-movement, so what are you? Where are you? You’re here (and not-here). Nothing to run to–or from. No life without death. No life or death. No lack.

Whatever you affirm or deny, that’s not you in the non-dual sense.

So relax. Groove now with the monsters you’ve generated out of dual perception. Work with them. Rest in the Unborn–which, when seen from the angle of emptiness, is also Darwin’s (and Yama’s) Wheel of Becoming. No thing ever really gets born because no thing is substantial and self-same unto itself.

Once you learn to sit with your monsters, maybe you’ll start to groove and dance with them as well, and begin to see that they’re not quite as formidable and permanent as you first supposed; that they’re ultimately empty of substantial existence, akin to mirages. Perhaps you’ll begin to comprehend yourself in the same way.

So sit in meditation–then spend the rest of your day like a puckish Hindu or Greek god, dancing, singing, and joking around. Think of Monty Python. Lighten up. The British have always been wise Buddhas of the horsing around sort. There’s wisdom there. Learn from them. One of their posters from WWII famously admonished, “Keep calm and carry on.” Buddha never said it better or more concisely.

And if you sit with your monsters, and chill out in other ways today, it might begin to dawn on you that the world is a bit calmer, more fluid, and less serious than perhaps your conditioning and nervous temperamental set points have you supposing; that the cosmos is an alternation of stillness and motion; that your snakes have always been ropes; that you’ve been subject to some stubbornly persistent illusions of perception and distortions of desire, evolutionarily and conceptually inherited, which stem in the first instance from ignorance of the non-dual nature of the cosmos (which you take yourself, mistakenly, to be merely “embedded” in, and not really inseparable from).

The ultimate truth is interconnection, emptiness, and emergence out of the non-dual. Samsara (the realm of change, suffering, and the ten thousand things) has always been nirvana (empty).

That’s the Buddhist intuition of the cosmos that tracks surprising well with our contemporary understandings of ecology and evolution–and with the added bonus of being a therapy for suffering.


Image source: Wikipedia Commons. The twelve stages of dependent origination are represented, clockwise, by the images within the twelve rectangles rimming the circle. (Akin to the stations of the cross in Catholicism?)


Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet.

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Buzz: Stephen Greenblatt’s Adam And Eve Book Coming Soon?

I don’t see the book listed at Amazon yet, but in an interview last year, Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, an atheist, said his next book would be on Adam and Eve. He’s also been teaching a course on Adam and Eve at Harvard, so he must be pregnant with this new book (or perhaps its already gone to the publisher). Here’s Greenblatt’s mention in interview of the project:

In the case of “The Swerve,” “Will in the World,” or the book I’m working on right now about the story of Adam and Eve, there’s an enormous, daunting body of work on these subjects. You can’t do this [research] quickly. I tend to be omnivorous; I love going through enormous numbers of things. I’ve always been this way. While I go through an enormous amount of books and articles, I also know rather quickly if it’s something I need or don’t need. I try not to squelch my curiosity. In college, I found the shelf in the library with the new books that hadn’t been assigned call numbers [yet], and I would graze it and see where they ended up. I still have that kind of curiosity. I don’t read everything, but with these projects . . . there’s such a huge amount of new material, I try to get control of it as not to be completely swamped.

And here’s his description of the molten wave he surfs when writing a book:

Writing is a balance. If you wait too long [to write after you’ve started your research], then you’ve accumulated so much stuff that you hardly get the space to write — it’s like a tidal wave. If you start writing too quickly, it tends to harden on you like concrete . . . I try to keep it molten.

Perspective shifts with time.

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Angry Yoga Instructor


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Archbishop Romero, Liberal Icon Of The 1980s, Gets Canonized

This is a pretty big deal. Pope Francis has succeeded in getting Archbishop Romero of El Salvador canonized. Here’s a quote from an excellent summary, at The New York Times, of Romero’s life–and murder:

Archbishop Romero was shot and killed at the altar as he celebrated Mass in San Salvador in 1980. His assassin was from one of the death squads propping up an unholy alliance among rich landowners, the army and sections of the Catholic Church as the country moved toward civil war. The archbishop’s crime was to order soldiers to stop killing innocent civilians. The far ­right elite saw him as an apologist for Marxist revolution — a defamation that highly placed individuals in the Vatican nurtured for three decades, and that Pope Francis has now finally squelched. The chief concern of these critics was that his canonization would be an effective endorsement of liberation theology, which they feared would allow Communism to infiltrate Latin America. This was a willful caricature of the movement that maintained that the Gospels carried a “preferential option for the poor”…

Interesting that secular liberals could see the blessedness of this man long before many of the (self-described) blessed.

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Is Atheist Sam Harris Sexy? Nagarjuna’s Opinion–And Thomas Aquinas’

Sam Harris is sexy, right? Perhaps you agree. But think again. How you answer this question says a lot about your orientation.

Not your sexual orientation. Or at least not just your sexual orientation. It reveals something about how you swing philosophically–whether to the East or West.

Nagarjuna vs. Thomas Aquinas. The second century Indian philosopher, the Buddhist Nagarjuna, by reason of logic alone, and having never laid eyes on Sam Harris, would say that he is not sexy. Not sexy. And if you swing East philosophically, even if you’re a heterosexual woman with a thing for intellectual atheists, or a gay male for whom images of Sam Harris perk you up, you’re nevertheless likely to agree with Nagarjuna–or at least with his argument. Sam Harris is not sexy.

But the 13th century Italian philosopher and theologian, the Catholic Thomas Aquinas, would beg to differ. Simply on being informed by trusted witnesses (imagine a time machine here) of the beguiling and mesmerizing powers of Sam Harris over some people’s imaginations, Aquinas would say–though he had never seen him himself, and by means of logic alone–that Sam Harris must be sexy.

So which is it? Sexy or not sexy? What’s going on here? Why would these two heavyweight logicians–the greatest classical logician of the East and the greatest medieval logician of the West–arrive at opposite conclusions as to whether or not an intellectual celebrity is sexy?

It could be that the disagreement exposes a flaw with logic started from metaphysical premises–and why we ultimately need science to settle speculative questions. It can be argued that, in metaphysics, where you start and stop an argument ultimately entails some sort of question begging: “Why did you start there and stop here?” Metaphysics can be too much like a machine for making sausage. Garbage in, garbage out.

But let’s set our cynicism aside for a moment, assume good intentions on the parts of both Nagarjuna and Aquinas (they’re not merely motivated reasoners, but are trying to get at the ultimate truth of matters), and give these two philosophers a fair shake.

Let’s start with Nagarjuna.

Nagarjuna: the first great ecologist. Nagarjuna begins his reasoning with an ecological insight: emptiness. What Nagarjuna means by emptiness is that nothing has an essential and independent existence. Echoing the poet John Donne, no person or thing is an island–and therefore can never just be. Everything that exists does so on the condition that other things be present. Therefore, no person is sexy. No individual can be anything at all. Not essentially. No flower in the flower; no Sam Harris in Sam Harris.

Put another way, when you dig into a flower, you don’t find a flower. You find the veins of its leaves, the silky fibers of its petals, the green ooze coming from the cut stem. What you don’t find is the self-same flower through and through. You find parts that, combined, you call a flower.

Likewise with Sam Harris. Follow him down through the pupils of his eyes, and you don’t find him behind there–only ocular equipment and a brain. Where’s Sam? He depends utterly on a very particular set of circumstances that are not Sam; he emerges (Venus-like?) out of the Great Sea of Prior Conditions, but not of himself. He is not something all by his lonesome, but dispersed into the system of contingent relations–including perceptual relations. Absent the right bodily, environmental, and perceptual conditions, Sam Harris is not the self-same Sam Harris he is at this moment. He’s empty. Change conditions and perceptions, and you change Sam.

Nagarjuna: Derrida of the East. Now if this sounds like an Eastern version of Derrida’s play of signifiers made flesh, you’re on to something.

Think of what Derrida would say about the dictionary and you’ve got a handle on what Nagarjuna is saying about the cosmos. Derrida would claim that no word in the dictionary is an island; that no word means anything absent the system of words in which it is embedded. Words are defined by other words.

And for Nagarjuna, it’s the same with individuals and things. Just as no single word means anything apart from all the other words in the dictionary–a dictionary is a catalog of self-referential signifiers–so individuals and things don’t mean anything apart from everything else. They’re in the play of signifiers–and signifieds. Not just Jesus, but all of us, are akin to words made flesh. If no word is an island, no flesh is an island either. We are not sexy of our own accord. We have no independent power of sexiness that we cast upon others like a warlock casts a spell.

The Tao of Nagarjuna. For Nagarjuna then, we should regard things, in ultimate terms, as: (1) empty (mutually interdependent arisings that are in constant and unstable flux); and (2) non-dual. Nagarjuna would thus like the first purport of the Tao Te Ching (in Steven Mitchell’s translation):

The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Though these lines come from a Taoist text, the last line is especially important from a Buddhist vantage, for it means that if you can arrest the chain of conditions that bring about a particular desire, you can change what manifests to perception. Desire colors perception. Change the perception part of the mutually interdependent arising equation, and, because all things are ultimately empty and non-dual, you literally change what they are in that moment–at least in relation to you.

So Nagarjuna puts the power of discernment and discrimination–the chopping power of conceptualization–in your hands. Existence is non-dual and a continuum. Think of the yin-yang symbol here, but smudge the line between the black and white fish. How you now cut the fish into two is your call: here’s where the white fish starts and the black fish stops, and here’s where the environment stops and Sam Harris starts. Like Solomon, you can divide your babies any way you like: Baby White divides from Baby Black here, Baby Go from Baby Stop there. But ultimately, there’s no dividing white from black, go from stop, up from down, etc. They’re all one; they’re non-dual; they’re relational; they often manifest along a continuum; and they’re empty.

So Nagarjuna would also like the second purport of the Tao Te Ching (again, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation):

When people see some things as beautiful,

other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

others become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.

Difficult and easy support each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low depend on each other.

Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master

acts without doing anything

and teaches without saying anything.

Things arise and she lets them come;

things disappear and she lets them go.

And Nagarjuna, in the seventh stanza of his Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (translated by Tenzin Dorjee and David Komito), writes this: “Without one there cannot be many and without many it is not possible to refer to one. Therefore one and many arise dependently and such phenomena do not have the sign of inherent existence.”

Do the one and the many, and being and non-being, really depend on each other to exist? Aquinas would say no, and so Nagarjuna’s non-dual claim exposes a fault line between East and West. Nagarjuna and the Tao Te Ching agree that you can’t have being without nothingness, and therefore even the ultimate–the One or the Tao–is itself empty. Nothing, not even God as the ultimate being (if God exists), has existence independently and essentially–and emptiness itself has no existence apart from beings.

So that’s the last stop on Nagarjuna’s (and the Tao Te Ching’s) logic train. Even emptiness is empty.

All aboard? Not Aquinas.

Where Aquinas and Nagarjuna part ways. It’s at these last two train stops–God is empty and emptiness is empty–that Aquinas and Nagarjuna lose their connection, for though Aquinas agrees with Nagarjuna that all created things are subject to change and contingent upon specific conditions to exist, he can’t agree that Ultimate Being (God) is in the same absurd, vulnerable, and ironic dilemma. God does not need emptiness to exist–nor, for that matter, darkness or evil. Before there was darkness, God was all light; before there was evil, God was all good.

The most existent being–God–is in need of nothing at all. Indeed, nothingness placed into God in a yin-yang manner as a condition of his Being, making him ultimately empty of a single and undivided essence, undermines God’s perfect existence and makes him not God at all. The Ultimate has to be unconditioned by anything–including nothing–to really be His Utmost. God is the necessary Being grounding contingent beings–and nothingness. And the contingent forms that do exist, first existed in the mind of God.

So Aquinas starts his reasoning, not with emptiness, but form.

Aquinas on form. There may be prior conditions out of which forms emerge, but for Aquinas this doesn’t make them empty. So long as they exist, forms are real–they possess real essences–and they consist of two things: actuality and potentiality (or, in Thomistic jargon, “act and potency”). God alone is perfect actuality, not needing to fulfill any potentials within himself. Aquinas’ God is a perfect being; the self-same throughout, lacking in nothing. But not created things.

Once all the conditions for a created form are in place, that form really exists, and the form has actual powers that are independent of its component parts. The form is an emergent property from conditions–but that doesn’t make it any less real. And the form has potencies. The form possesses, by the very nature of its being and form, powers that, though hidden now, manifest in the presence of certain conditions.

So just as a match has the potential for burning wood, you have the potential in your form to set certain people on fire sexually. Your “sexy power” resides in a potency that becomes actual under the right conditions.

In analyzing phenomena, Aquinas thus starts from an essentialist premise, with God as the most existent and essential Being. Nagarjuna starts from an ecological premise: you can never be free from interconnection, and therefore from emptiness. Emptiness haunts being.

So who’s right here?

Aquinas and Nagarjuna: they bleed on both sides. For Aquinas, God has to be transcendent. The first Being has to be prior to all subsequent existence and nothingness–and then remain in some sense apart from dynamic creation. But logically, Nargarjuna insists that being can’t even be conceived independent of nothingness, and therefore anything that exists–including God–has to be empty of essence. This point bloodies the nose of Aquinas’ position. If God is the Ultimate Pot, then, to exist, he needs form and emptiness exactly as white needs black, one needs zero, and good needs evil.

But Nagarjuna bleeds as well. Aquinas would insist that Nagarjuna needs to fix his infinite regress before claiming a victory for emptiness over being: where did the First Pot–the first emptiness–emerge from in the first place? Has it always existed? How can that be?

So both Aquinas and Nagarjuna draw blood when they come into contact most directly at the ultimate mystery–call it The Pot of Mystery. They both climb to the lip of The Pot of Mystery from opposite sides (Aquinas climbs up along the outside of its form; Nagarjuna climbs up along the inside, where the emptiness is). But both come to stillness and silence at reaching the lip of the The Pot. Before them, light falls upon clay that surrounds a dark and empty circle. It is here that logic and words fail them both.

Mountains are really mountains. Zen master Ch’ing-yuan Wei-hsin reached the same impass, and framed the faultline between emptiness and form as a process of alternation: accepting common sense, doubting common sense, accepting common sense (Quoted in Maseo Abe’s Zen and Western Thought, University of Hawaii Press, 1985, p. 4) :

Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, “Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.”

After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, “Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.”

But now, having attained the abode of final rest [awakening], I say, “Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.” 

In other words, every thing that emerges out of the empty and non-dual cosmic network is interconnected with everything else–even as it obtains its own unreproducible identity in the now. Every thing is means and ends in the present. Being and emptiness are akin to looking at two sides of the same coin: mountains are not really mountains–and yet they are. Alternations in time (mountains, not mountains; mountains, not mountains; mountains, not mountains) prevent us from seeing the whole truth at once in a single vision: the non-dual nature of reality.

Rock or pot: essence or ecology? So what’s the right metaphor here? Is God or the Ultimate akin to a rock (the self-same through and through and in need of nothing, transcending even the non-dual) or a pot (incapable of manifesting form without emptiness)? Do forms, at bottom, emerge and exist essentially or ecologically?

Perhaps to reconcile Aquinas with Nagarjuna, we might say that what we call God or the Ultimate is the non-dual (the one and zero are inseparable, inaccessible to logic absent the other, and only approached at the same time, if at all, by stillness and silence).

Aquinas, curiously, went silent toward the end of his life, and Nagarjuna deployed logic to bring his interlocutors to mystery and silence, showing that every logical starting point in metaphysics derails at some point in a contradiction.

So are you with Aquinas or Nagarjuna–or is this like asking, Do you want the vase, or the empty part of the vase? Is Sam Harris sexy?

How about Marilyn Martian?

2a curvy martian

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Three Things I Think Are True

At this point in my life, I think there are three things that are true–the first one being rather obvious: I am a limited being, embedded in the system I’m trying to explain. This means I cannot be wholly confident that I’ve got a handle on the ultimate truth (though I can speculate). On the plus side, I can get a handle on my phenomenological experience. That’s something.

The second thing I think is true is not quite as obvious, but in our democratic age it’s also probably not terribly controversial: The truth is the whole. In other words, I can’t bracket off small concerns from larger ones and still have the whole truth. If God exists (for example), God’s ultimate truth doesn’t negate my phenomenological truth. Time and space; center and margin; metaphysics and history–they’re all important; they all go together. You can’t really order what’s important about them into a hierarchy–or even hold them in a single vision. What’s good from one point-of-view is problematic (or even lacking sense) from another, and what is means from one vantage is ends from another. Perspective is plural.

Put another way, this moment in time and space, as I experience it, is means and ends to the whole cosmos up to this point. It’s of central importance now (at least to me), and also of utility to some future now.

Does that sound narcissistic? Well, maybe it is. But T. S. Eliot captured this narcissism (if it’s fair to call it that) quite astutely in “Burnt Norton” (1935):

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

And this brings me to the third thing I think is true: the now is important. This is why Buddhist meditation and reading poetry is probably worth one’s time.

I think meditation and poetry have value because they are, in part, about training a person in habits of waking up to what’s present now; to seeing and experiencing truth and wonder in each moment, as when the poet Wallace Stevens writes of time being the emperor of ice-cream (which is an end in itself–yum!–and also melting away):

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

So a key aspect of suffering is missing the moment because we are discontent with some aspect of it. We make the discontented moment subservient to a craving, which leads to shunning this moment and grasping for a different moment, then holding tight to that better moment–which leads in turn to disappointment when it passes. It’s a vicious cycle; the Wheel of Samsara. Stepping off from the Wheel entails following William Blake’s admonition to see “eternity in an hour.” Along the way to something else, in our obsession with shoring up a boundary, we lose the moments.

Likewise with the truth. The truth is Nietzsche’s mobile army of metaphors; the turning of a non-symmetrical diamond that we can never stop rotating. There’s always more truth on the other side; always another vantage. It’s when we try to freeze the diamond of truth in mid-turn and say–“This is the one vantage on the diamond that should be taken as the ultimate truth”–that we start to feel unease. Our truths won’t stay fixed because we’re always leaving something out. Language fails.

Language fails because truth is akin to a hyperobject (a thing too large to wholly get one’s head around–such as an iceberg, world history, the complexity of a cell, or a galaxy with a billion stars). It’s also something ultimately non-dual–which is the first purport of the Tao Te Ching (in Steven Mitchell’s translation):

The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Existence, being ultimately non-dual, makes for difficulties to comprehension because we are evolved and speaking animals–and biological evolution and language are concerned with noun and verb, subject and object, cell wall and environment, what’s in and what’s out. Locally and pragmatically, language and evolutionary boundary-making (I compete here and cooperate there; I don’t care here and empathize there, etc.) are important–you can’t say anything or survive without them. But ultimately, existence is non-dual and on the move; it’s a continuum, an interconnection, an emptiness–and these can’t be put into words; into tidy genus-species-specimen categories.

So no man or thing is really an island. Not ultimately. No thing has self-existence. Being and non-being are dependent on one another–which makes for a sense of conceptual emptiness and mystery (no flower in the flower, and yet–here’s a flower!).

So we should get comfortable with emptiness. The pot is inseparable from the form of the pot. You can’t have emptiness without the pot, nor the pot without emptiness. But we split them up–because we have to for speech. “This clay part here–that’s the pot. This empty part inside the pot, that’s not the pot.” We do the same with ourselves in relation to our environment.

And this brings us to the breath in meditation, for our lungs are pots–forms encompassing emptiness. What are you going to inhale (intellectually and emotionally)? What are you going to exhale? What in this moment will you notice and make important–and what will you make unimportant? What will you breathe in, and what will you breathe out?

It’s about accepting and letting go; making room for the new; relaxing. Will you see the truth in this moment in the sense of it being both an end and a means–or will you push it away for some other truth from the past or out in the future? Will you take Emerson’s advice in his essay, “Circles,” to “make the verge of to-day the new centre”?

That, to me, is the problem of our relation to truth: given our existential situation, what will we notice; what will we make important right now? If the ultimate truth eludes us because of the limitations of language; because the doors of our perception are conditioned by our habits, our evolution, our cultural zeitgeist, our desires, our embeddedness–we nevertheless have this moment. Are we noticing it, accepting it, resisting it–or simply missing it? What’s our relation to the truth in this moment–this moment of truth?

I’m not talking about just our relation to an uncertain truth out in the future–something we may have inferred or abstracted incorrectly–but to this moment right now. Means and ends are here. The kingdom of heaven is within, without, and now. In the great halls of truth, where does this kingdom of now reside–this play of matter and imagination in the present–but in ourselves most broadly conceived? Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself”:

There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now,

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,

Always the procreant urge of the world.

Do we believe Whitman? What room will we make for the emperor of ice-cream? Because the realm of the emperor of ice-cream is the truth too.

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God Shadowed By Emptiness: Thomas Aquinas vs. The Buddhist Nagarjuna

Emptiness shadows theism. With regard to Thomas Aquinas’ method for grounding existence in being as opposed to change or emptiness (as the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna did), what I find interesting is how, despite himself, emptiness nevertheless shadows Aquinas’ theism. What I mean is that Aquinas’ deity, when push comes to shove, appears empty–and in Catholicism, the negative theology of its mystics (“God is not this, not that, etc.”) also seems to suggest this. I think it’s quite interesting that Aquinas went silent toward the end of his life, apparently abandoning words–and perhaps even an ongoing interest in apologetics.

So these are starting points of suspicion for me, but this doesn’t let Nagarjuna off the hook.

Being shadows Buddhism. As with Aquinas, Nagarjuna also appears to have a problem–but in reverse. Nagarjuna’s deconstructions and logic chopping appear to bring one to a sense of mystery as to where emptiness actually gets its extraordinary power to fructify in the first place. Being shadows Nagarjuna. His arguments bring one to mystery, stillness, and silence as well.

So this too makes me suspicious. Are Nagarjuna and Aquinas converging on non-being and being in such a way that they’re looking at different sides of the same coin? It seems that less separates them than initially meets the eye.

The cosmos is shadowed by emptiness. God, if God exists, made a cosmos that appears empty and without inherent meaning–and I don’t just mean that God made a cosmos that possesses vast spaces between the randomly scattered stars and galaxies, and contains (at least on our little planet) creatures that suffer and die. I mean empty as in: no self in the self that exists; no thing in the thing that exists; no cosmos in the cosmos that exists. Nothing has an independent existence. For Nagarjuna, everything is empty because it is interconnected, transitory, conditioned, contingent, and consists of parts–no flower in the flower.

By contrast, Aquinas grounds this emptiness with the positing of a necessary, first, independent, and unconditioned Being. This Being does not consist of parts, and guarantees, as the ultimate Being, that what appears empty, interconnected, transitory, and conditioned does in fact have substance–some sort of salvageable being in the midst of change–and in some cases (as with humans), an eternal being that can go to heaven and be with God.

So everybody admits–even Christians and Muslims–that there looks to be no net beneath the flight of appearances; that things like the Holocaust and dark matter (95% of the known universe) seem to make the cosmos quite absurd and random–but the theist claims there’s a deity who underwrites the empty, contingent, conditioned, changing, interconnected, time and space bound things of which the universe consists, assuring with his own Being their full and independent existence.

But I’m not so sure if Aquinas’ necessary Being thesis isn’t whistling in the dark. Nietzsche was also not so sure about this.  (Okay, Nietzsche was actually quite contemptuous of the necessary Being thesis.) And God, in any case, has a problem. A big problem.

God himself appears empty. It’s not just the universe, but God himself, who appears empty.

In other words, even in positing a necessary Being, that Being takes on problematic characteristics. Emptiness hounds God. God is supposed to be ultimate Being–not empty, not contingent, not conditioned, not changing, not interconnected or dependent on other things in time and space. God is supposed to exist (have Being, or rather, be Being itself; be transcendent; be One). Yet, in terms of personality, God sure seems to like interconnection, emptiness, the transitory, and diversity–for he made so much of these things. If one didn’t know better, one might conclude that the many and transitory are all that is. That’s certainly all we see. We don’t know why God made a cosmos of evolution, vast time and space, emptiness, and multiplicity, but–if he exists–he did.

And God never actually shows himself; never actually reveals his independent Being. It makes one wonder. Aquinas would say that the many are in need of the One to exist–to have being–but perhaps it goes the other way as well. Maybe, to really exist–to have being–the One also needs the many.

So when you take a hard look at the idea of God, he is said to be Being Itself, yet he appears to be indistinguishable from Nagarjuna’s prolific emptiness, from nothingness. He seems in need of the cosmos to exist to ground him; he seems in need of a non-dual solution to his own being–which would make him as empty of essence as everything else.

And even Thomas argues that God can only be analogized–never described, captured, or seen. The best response to him is stillness and silence. Not even Moses can look at God and live. And in the end, Thomas gave up talking of him. God has attributes that make him completely Other from what we know. It’s hard therefore to say what it means to declare, “He exists.” He’s more mysterious than Oz, beyond space and time, not consisting of matter, and yet The Most Existent Being, unconditioned, grounding all other beings. Quite strange, paradoxical, and unsettling.

Maybe God’s not there at all. Because there’s actually much less distance between Nagarjuna and Aquinas than might first be imagined–at least with regard to the apparent facts, that the cosmos appears empty and bereft of meaning–this suggests that there’s less distance between atheists and theists as well. The old joke that an atheist just believes in one less god than the monotheist is actually quite telling, for it implies that the difference between Nagarjuna and Aquinas consists of a similar irony: Nagarjuna just believes in one less non-empty Being than Aquinas.

Does the Emperor have clothes? It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that there would be dissenting non-theists in the crowd saying, “Um, let’s stop the pretend. The Emperor has no clothes. The empty cosmos is what we see–and what is. We can let the ontology go.” But this generates panic; an earthquake in the religious believer. “Whattt!!! God has to be the clothing that gives form to the transitory cosmos! We simply can’t bear to live in so naked and empty a universe! It means Nietzsche; it means Buddhism! Absent an ultimate Being, we, as humans, are groundless and without a compass–so we need to believe in God–if, for no other reason, to get our bearings on morality, reason, and sanity.”

Is emptiness bliss or nightmare? Buddhists like Nagarjuna and Dogen, and atheist philosophers like Nietzsche, tend to shrug at theist nerviness and hysterics about the death of God, pointing to emptiness as the clue for living in the now. “No, we don’t have a permanent or independent essence, but wow-wee–just look at what’s going on right now!” They treat emptiness as the space for interconnection, possibility, light, jazz, play, relief–and even happiness. But for Aquinas and other theists, an empty cosmos–and a deity indistinguishable from nothingness–is grounds for a nightmare. We need solidity and “rocks in place”–to echo Thoreau.

But the reality is that there is no solid footing anywhere. Only the merest gossamer gown of ghostly adornment separates Nagarjuna and the atheist from Aquinas and the theist.

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