The Sellout, Satire At Its Finest

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Book Reviews

In his landmark paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel suggested that an organism is conscious when there is something that it is like to be that organism. It’s a beautiful definition, I think, and one that can be expanded to all sorts of questions of identity. What is it like to be American? To be a farmer? To be an art critic? To be a woman? To be Latino?

Is it possible that we partake of many forms of consciousness simultaneously? I think so, and in Paul Beatty’s delicious, raucous, and profound novel on racism in America, The Sellout, Beatty describes in laugh-out-loud satire and rollicking detail what it is like to be black, only to undermine his own exploration with the discovery that blackness is unintelligible lest it be understood in the context of what it is like to be human.

I’ve read a number of great books in the last few years, but none that I would say were better than this one, and few that I would say were as good. Great art has a sort of recursive genius, a multi-layered exposition that cannot be planned or forced, but arises seemingly of its own volition and I daresay surprises even the artist at times. Individual lines echo major themes. Sequences illumine facets of the whole, and a spirit emerges from the work itself that speaks at every point, yet wriggles out of sight whenever we try to grasp hold of it. This book has that quality in self-referential spades.

We first catch sight of the book’s slippery theme in the Prologue, when the narrator—who is on trial at the district court for reinstituting segregation and slavery in his hometown, as part of an effort to restore the community’s lost identity and literal place on the map—asks why his only plea options are guilty or innocent. “Why couldn’t I be ‘neither’, or ‘both’?” he asks. Then he says, “Your Honor, I plead human.” His lawyer instantly intervenes to clarify an innocent plea, then jokingly requests a change of venue, with Salem, Massachusetts and Nuremburg, Germany being the obvious choices.

The narrator’s father is F.K. Me, a social scientist “of some renown” who conducted experiments on the narrator throughout his childhood. In a reprisal of research conducted by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark on color consciousness in black children, Me presents his son with two dollscapes—one of Ken and Malibu Barbie chilling by the Dreamscape pool, and a second of famous black civil rights leaders being chased through a swamp by plastic German shepherds. Harriet Tubman is a 36-24-36 (bust-waist-hips) Barbie painted black, and the North Star is a Christmas ornament. When the narrator says, “I’m down with Ken and Barbie,” (because they have better accessories), his father yells, “What? Why?” And the research program is terminated. The narrator is sent out to work in the fields.

Dr. Me wears a number of hats, one of which is the local “nigger whisperer.” The narrator witnesses his father’s therapeutic talents on full display when a local gangster takes to the bed of his truck with a nickel-plated .38 and begins reciting poetry from his notebook in iambic pentameter, giving birth to the “crack rock era.” Dr. Me intervenes so the SWAT team doesn’t have to, and when asked by his son what he said to calm the drug dealer down, he replies, “I said, ‘Brother, you have to ask yourself two questions, Who am I? And how may I become myself?’ “

These same two questions bookend the novel, and are asked again by the narrator, of himself, near the novel’s conclusion when he is reflecting on all that has transpired. Despite the many efforts he has made to restore dignity—albeit an obscene variety of it perhaps—to the community of his youth, he still hasn’t been able to answer the most basic questions about himself. While the fact that he is black permeates the entire course of his life, it is not a fact that affords him any genuine self-knowledge. At one point the narrator says, “Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I’d have been better off. I wouldn’t have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn’t have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it.”

This is the paradox that Beatty reveals so masterfully. Blackness isn’t an answer in and of itself, but nor is it anything but relevant to the narrator’s experience of being human. Through prose that cuts and bites and rips with humor—several times I laughed out loud in an otherwise empty room—Beatty grapples head-on with the very real tragedy of racism. He left me with the realization that there is, in fact, something it is like to be black in America, something encoded in the world and its history which we cannot simply strike down with a wand, but also it is a thing which defies absolutes. Its boundaries are diffuse, and whatever it is, we’re all involved in it somehow, whether inside or out.

When we look closely at it, as closely as we can, we find that the center of blackness, as of whiteness, and of every other –ness we would discern, is our tragic inability as humans to hold difference and sameness together. This failure is the essential human handicap. We’ve failed to recognize that both are part of being human, and that each is necessary to the other—that we, in all of our colors and shapes and sizes, can only truly possess our humanity when our uniqueness and our commonality are respected as treasures equally worth preserving. It is this paradox, surfacing in passage after passage to peek at us through Beatty’s delicious harangue of racism in America, that gives this novel life.

What It’s Like

comments 14
Poetry

Once I asked Hafiz
what it was like to be God
and Hafiz told me one night
when he should have been sleeping
he asked himself the very same question
and when he imagined what it was like to be God
he discovered God was imagining
what it was like to be Hafiz.
A psychic tremor occurred
in the air of his breath
like when you know your mother is calling
right before the phone rings,
and when Hafiz answered it
and said “Hello…”
the silence of ten thousand angels
holding the line
awoke him
from one cracking hangover of being.
He said that in that state
he couldn’t help but note
that a rose had appeared
in the dry earth
by the well.

Well, Hafiz said to me,
just like he’d told himself
while still holding the barren receiver
up to the side of his head
and witnessing the beauty all around him
in forms too countless to tally,
there could be many explanations
for a rose.

Sometimes for instance, at dawn,
the atmospheric conditions
are just right to produce the sort of dew
that no seed can deny,
and sometimes a seed is carried
to that unsuspecting spot
of dry and well-trodden earth
by the wind or the storks
or in the belly of a deer
when the deer’s belly,
unbeknownst to the deer,
glimpses the Beloved passing through
in the vessel of a perfect seed
and sculpts its enzymes
to clear a labyrinthine path
so the seed
can pass unharmed,

but!
Hafiz told me,
sometimes the Beloved
takes the most direct route possible,
bypassing the wind and the storks and the deer,
so that a rose can occur
not for any particular reason
but for every reason at once,
as if out of nowhere.
This usually happens, he said,
when you imagine what it might be like
to be God imagining what it might be like
to be you.

And you don’t look away.

Then you get that rose
by the well in the dry earth,
or…
you receive, unbidden,
the urge to forgive everything
that ever was or will be,
but in either case
by the time the townspeople
gather their water
and trek to their homes
and wash their babies
and water their goats
and tidy up the kitchen
they forget they ever saw
that rose (or forgave the world)
until later,
at dinner,
with a Friend,
when the light is gentle
and desires are sated
and candles are flickering in the corners,
they get a fuzzy tickle
in the back of their minds
and they wonder
if this is what it’s really like…

…what it’s really like
to be a thought
inside of God
that’s actually
thinking back.

The Life of Water, Part 2

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Science

Another one of those elementary-school-check-box characteristics of life that I remember is that organisms respond to their environment. In the archetypal example, plants bend their branches towards the light, but rocks do not—(at least on the scales of time over which we’re capable of keeping an eye on them.)

What these characteristics don’t tell you is that life is a singular field of continuous transformation. There appear to be discrete organisms, but there are not. There are merely stable orchestrations within a sea of exchange—local boons of complexity which begin and end in light, and which are never truly discrete.

The mechanistic notion of life we’re taught describes the stacking and sequencing of stable commodities—the combination of immutable elements into molecular propensities, the typesetting of amino acids into instructions, and the weaving of molecules into the biological media of bone, muscle, brain and skin. But the underlying process of life is not combination; it is transformation.

Transformation simply looks like combination when it is not understood for what it is. When it is not afforded its natural state of wholeness.

All of life’s exchange involves the speeding up or slowing down of the universal substance of light. A rock absorbs and emits light with minimal transformation. At most there is a shift in spectrum. But a tree absorbs light and emits—days later—fragrance, wood, and cherries. The light has slowed down, densified into matter, and been transformed. This is the hallmark of life.

The misperception that forms when transformation is left out of life’s equation is beautifully apparent in our understanding of water. We call it H2O when in fact it is nothing of the sort. Water is not a sack of atoms, but a marriage begetting a new form of life. Water is a transformer of cosmic information.

Both Viktor Schauberger and Johann Grander wrote of this, and their ideas would be easy to dismiss were it not for their efficacy. Grander described water as a “cosmic substance” and noted that water actively receives subtle forms of energy and information from the cosmos, stores them, and releases them to living organisms. We see in water a primordial version of the continuous process of transformation on which life is built.

In Grander’s technology water that has been prepared using his proprietary methods is sealed inside of stainless steel containers. These containers can then basically go anywhere, and, through resonance, the water inside of them can impart beneficial energetic characteristics to other water that passes nearby. The effects are most obvious when studying the bacteria that live in the water. What has been found in repeated trials is that the bacteria present in the water not only undergo a physiological transformation—a shift in the size and structure of the colonies that is noted when the bacteria are cultured, as well as an increased metabolic rate—but also a shift in the spectrum of species that dominate the population.

Grander described this as the reactivation of water’s natural immune system.

Leaving the details and secondary effects aside for the moment, what is astounding to me is water’s capability to receive information from the larger structure of nature, to not only sustain it’s “living state” but simultaneously to transform it into forms that organisms can sense and utilize. One of the more amazing examples of this that I heard once was when I had a brief correspondence with a research scientist at Purdue University who was studying the role that water dynamics play in the body clock. He’d noticed an interesting phenomenon: the inner dynamics of water he was studying sometimes “rebooted” during strong solar events.  I sent him a Grander device once to test—a small apparatus the size of a ball point pen with water sealed inside of it—and he noted the same process occurred instantly when the device was exposed to water in his laboratory.

An amazing thing about the Grander devices is they don’t wear out. So it’s not a case of the water within them being “charged up” at the factory and then “wearing down” over time. They don’t have any power source, and are just water in a box. It’s literally a case of water being a medium of continuous energetic exchange with the larger natural world, absorbing and transforming subtle forms of energy and information into new life. It’s a case of water being a bridge from the cosmos to the cell.

When I first began experimenting with Grander devices I was working in industrial cooling systems. Mostly at nearby hockey rinks. I would head over during lunch over several weeks to take samples of the cooling water to a laboratory, then install a Grander device, and do it again. It was fascinating to see the pictures of the bacteria colonies and witness how they changed in shape, size and quantity. Something was obviously happening.

On one occasion two different labs were given samples from the same system we were testing. One lab told me the cooling water had thousands and thousands of colony forming units, and the other lab told me there were none whatsoever. This was really strange, because it was the middle of summer and the water was under incredible stress biologically speaking. I asked the second lab to check for really small colonies, and they called me back later and said they had assumed there was some sort of very fine debris in the sample because they didn’t usually see colonies like that, but on re-examining the slides with this idea in mind they recounted, and agreed with the other labs quantification of the result.

Of course, most people I spoke with either kept their thoughts to themselves on this idea I was offering, or suggested I check myself into a rehab facility. But every time I think of the stars whispering into water’s ear, and water listening–transforming and passing those whispers on to living beings–I get goose bumps. Non-living matter simply doesn’t do this… Not, at least, at the level of scale that we see in living matter. At the deeper levels of nature I think we know each particle of matter is this very sort of resonating energetic twinkle.

Eventually you realize, life is all there is…

Limbering Up

comments 29
Poetry

Hafiz
with a pick axe.
A coil of rope
laid over his shoulder.
This is a rare sight.
He’s standing in a flood of holographic daylight
which doesn’t cast any shadows whatsoever
because somehow in my living room
the light of three majestic stars has intersected,
and I swear we only ever had one star in the area
capable of this
when I was growing up.
Behind him
a few angels are stretching out in the hallway.
Smoking butts. Touching toes.
Razzing each other.
Laughing with accents I can’t quite place.
They are pointing out the subtle differences
in one another that are known to cause delight.
This one behemoth grabs another one by the shoulder
and pries his right arm back like
he’s about to arm wrestle a silverback
or take the mound against
the greatest hitters of all time
in a 27-inning pitcher’s duel
and he better get the blood flowing.
This is what you do, I gather.
You limber up.

What’s this all about, Hafiz?
What’s with the muscle?

We are going to open up your head, he replied.
And we are going to pour in a much needed bag of sky.

I looked at him
with my tongue balled up in my cheek
like a poorly kept secret
and I shook my head.
No way, Jose.

And if I resist?

He shrugged.
We could leave you be
again for a while.

Hafiz. May I remind you
that you and this gang of hellions
have been living
in the apartment next door
for seventeen months now,
banging pots and pans together nonstop.
Hooting like drunkards.
Playing tackle football or something
for all I know.
Not to mention the howling contests
on the back deck
at all hours.
That is leaving me be?

I’ll confess, he said.
We’re all a little weary,
of your reluctance to join us.

The Life of Water, Part 1

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Science

When I was a boy my elementary school science book offered a definition of life that was based on a collection of properties. It was like a checklist, and where there was the right sort of smoke, you could count on a certain fire. Life was marked by the ability to reproduce, the ability to move and/or respond to environmental stimuli, and the ability to maintain homeostasis. I don’t remember all of the characteristics now; I think maybe there were four or five of them. Years later I read a book which contained a definition of life authored by the Chilean scientist Francisco Varela, which encapsulated much of this in the singular notion termed autopoiesis. The basic translation is self-creating.

Another concept I loved discovering was the idea of dissipative systems. This is the notion that the flow of energy through a system can enable that system to sustain higher states of order. The example often given is a shallow pan of water which is heated from below. When a number of factors converge, the flow of heat through the water will create “dissipative structures”, which are ordered convection cells within the pan of water. In essence, the water spontaneously forms an ordered pattern of convection currents—think of little water wheels spinning in place alongside of one another—that transport hot water from the bottom up to the surface, where it cools. This idea of dissipative structures is an elementary facet of life. We eat high grade nutrients, and return them to the Earth in a “lower grade” form, and our bodies live off of the difference.

Around this time I also began reading about water, first through the lens of Callum Coats’ translations of Viktor Schauberger. I wasn’t as much interested in water as I was Schauberger’s conception of nature in general. One thing led to another and I was on my way to Austria to tour industrial facilities that were using the somewhat esoteric technology of Austrian naturalist Johann Grander (described in a previous post here) to eliminate the need for industrial chemicals in their cooling systems. These were modern, state of the art manufacturing facilities in Austria and Germany that produced such goods as competition skis (think downhill and slalom), semiconductors, and printed textiles. This was a tremendously exciting time for me.

Eventually I realized there was very little I’d learned about life over the years that didn’t apply to water. It would take a pretty persuasive argument at this point to convince me water is non-living. For Johann Grander, water was absolutely alive. And there is a profound way in which all that we call life appears to be an augmentation and extension of the dynamics embodied in water. I want to explore these ideas in a series of pieces, not in any particular order.

Over the last ten years or so the Russian researcher Vladimir Voeikov,with the help of other scientists, has described what he terms the “respiration of water.” You could think of this respiration as being closely related to metabolism, and to the idea of dissipative structures.  The first definition on Google of metabolism is “the chemical processes that occur within a living organism to maintain life.” Voeikov showed that water spontaneously undergoes internal reactions which form Reactive Oxygen Species. Low grade energy from the environment (think of water flowing down a stream, or vaporizing into morning mist) causes spontaneous reactions to occur which release bound oxygen and hydrogen. He calls this an exhalation because oxygen and hydrogen gases are released and mobilized in solution. The inhalation is when these gases are once again consumed, and bound together again. The key is that some of the energy released is stored in more complex molecules.

A distinction between dissipative structures in non-living matter and those found in living matter is that in non-living matter there are no internal reservoirs of energy storage. For instance, in the example of the convection cells, as soon as we remove the heat source, the convection cells in the pan dissolve. But in our bodies—the other extreme end of the spectrum—we don’t have to eat continuously to live. We store the energy from our food in complex organic molecules that we can break down later to utilize when needed. It turns out that water does this, too!

Voeikov has shown that water’s respiration processes are capable of producing more complex molecules such as H2O2 and other peroxides. This was a hypothesis he offered in approximately 2006. Later, through collaboration with the Italian physicist Emilio del Giudice, whose work focused on the formation of coherent domains within water, Voeikov realized that energy could also be stored in extensive water clusters that exist in a coherent state. A coherent domain is an ensemble of water molecules vibrating in unison, and it takes energy exchange to “lock” and “unlock” these states. When an ensemble of water molecules are in this collective state, they are able to exist for an extended period of time without degrading due to thermal effects. This is, in essence, a sort of homeostasis.

Let me try to explain this, because it’s really important. When water molecules are in a coherent state they are essentially a single entity. You can only deal with them as a group. So if they change temperature, they all have to change temperature at once, together. They possess the property, in other words, of wholeness.  Their individual degrees of freedom are blurred together and so transactions that could occur for individual molecules cannot take place for the group, because they are all holding hands in a circle. They don’t have a free hand you can grab hold of. Thus, a coherent system is in some ways isolated from its environment, and energy can effectively be stored in these reservoirs for use at a later time. This energy storage for later mobilization is the hallmark of life!

What does this all really mean? Well, I am realizing I’ll never come close to conveying the ideas about water that inspire me in a single post, so this will be a new series that I will write. But let me close this first post by suggesting that scientists have discovered that water displays one of the most fundamental characteristics of living organisms: it possesses an internal, cyclical dynamic that is able to receive energy from its environment, metabolize that energy into more complex internal structures that are insulated from the external environment, and utilize that energy through metabolic cycles to continuously sustain higher-order functions. There is much, much more to say about this, but I hope you find it an intriguing beginning to what is for me a fascinating topic.

On Intellectual Unwillingness, the End, and the Beginning

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Christ / Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

When I began this series of posts I was frustrated by the particular combination of admiration and frustration I had been feeling—and still feel—listening to Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast. While I appreciate Sam’s take on many things, what frustrated me was his unwillingness to engage with ideas about the nature of the universe that lay in the unexplored midlands between the polarities of fundamentalist theism and the same sort of scientific materialism. On multiple occasions I’ve witnessed his swift dismissal and/or refusal to engage on any ideas that lie in this region.

This frustration reached its peak for me in his discussions with Russell Brand on a recent podcast, in which Russell asked if there might not be some underlying, unified ground of being that remains once religions are stripped of their dogma, their ritual, and their political machinations. I’m not quoting exactly, so please give me some leeway here. Russell essentially asked about the possibility of genuine oneness, to which Sam responded by noting that the Catholic dogma about the sanctity of life had extended human suffering by denying the possibility of embryonic stem cell research. This seemed out of left field to me. (For those interested in listening briefly, the podcast with Russell Brand is freely accessible on Sam’s website, and this exchange I’m paraphrasing begins at time 1:38:00 plus or minus.)

Russell responded by saying he felt ultimately he and Sam would be on the same side of that one, though Russell understood a certain hesitation comes into play when discussing human life in any form. Then Russell attempted to turn the conversation back to the possibility of genuine interconnectivity and oneness, and Sam chose to focus on a tangential point of Russell’s long-winded reply—here Russell’s somewhat sprawling style undermined him I think—which was Russell’s stated discontent with consumerism. Instead of addressing what I felt was a central thrust of the previous hour and a half, Sam deflected the conversation to this sidebar on religious dogma, and then regrouped, eventually, on the possibilities of nuclear terrorism, the need for good laws and externalized systems so that nobody has to be a moral hero to do the right thing, some interesting psychological research on the human response to suffering, and statistics on world poverty.

So what I would like to do today is explore the territory I felt was unexplored: the idea of wholeness. Wholeness is a beautiful and enigmatic possibility I don’t think we can yet exclude from being fundamental to nature and the universe. And I want to explore it through the lens of Christopher Alexander’s writing, which ever since I discovered it has always moved me to joy even in the shortest of passages. Christopher is an architect, and has devoted his career to researching processes conducive to creating spaces that nurture human beings, encourage organic interconnection, vulnerability and well-being, and step away from the modern artificiality of concept and image that leave us bereft. He calls this sort of building “life-giving” and he views the sorts of processes that generate life-giving spaces as being healing to the builder. A central theme to Christopher’s work is wholeness.

Last night I read a description he wrote on wholeness and I thought it worth offering directly, as I was struck by its beauty and power. I hope you will find, as I do, the intensity and care of thought that he has placed into this passage. (The emphases are from the original.)

[beginning of excerpt from Battle for the life and Beauty of the Earth]

“First, wholeness is a structure, and can be understood as such. This means that when we try to find the wholeness of a particular thing or place, we can point a finger at that structure, and so make it possible to share our idea of what the wholeness is.

“Second, the thing we call wholeness—the feeling or the intuition, of what wholeness is—always extends beyond the thing in question. If we speak of the wholeness of a person, we may be confident that this wholeness is felt through that person’s connection with the world. It is not possible to be whole by being isolated from all that surrounds you.

“Third, there is also the fact that somehow, any wholeness we want to point to, or think about, seems to elude comprehension. That is why I sometimes call it ‘wholeness, the intangible.’ The intangible comes from the fact that every thing that has, or maintains, wholeness is always unique. This means that words and concepts almost always fail to encompass it perfectly; only the wholeness itself can point to what it is.

“Fourth, there is, too, the presence of unity. What we refer to as wholeness, is a quality of being one, of being glued-together, interlaced, being unified. It is, also, somehow, at peace. Even if it is a raging storm at sea where we experience wholeness, somehow, in some sense and some fashion, it is peaceful, because it is exactly what it is, and nothing else.

“Fifth, each wholeness contains and is composed of myriad other wholes. This last is something that is describable. There are specific geometric qualities and properties that come into play. These tell us what kinds of relationships between smaller wholenesses and the larger ones, are doing the hard work. They are always there, and must be there, in order to create the wholeness of the larger thing.

“Sixth and finally, the idea of wholeness encompasses the idea of healing. If we wish to heal something, we wish to make it whole. The Middle-English word hale, lying as it does halfway between whole and heal, gives us a sense of this connection. Healing is making whole; that which is healed has a stronger wholeness than that which is not healed.

“Wholeness can only be understood in the act of grasping it and moving into it, creating it, and experiencing it. Much as we might like to have a crisp definition, it is simply not possible. We can reach understanding of wholeness only when we see the objective wholeness in the thing or place, and simultaneously experience the growth of wholeness in ourselves. These two must go together. That is the nature of the phenomenon.”

[ending of excerpt]

I want to close by suggesting that what excites me about both science and spirituality is the experience Christopher describes above—the spontaneous discovery of wholeness, which in its occurrence is always both within and without. I think what Sam has chosen to dismiss in his pursuit of the rational is the possibility that all existence exists together, the possibility that wholeness is the fundamental characteristic of the universe. The reason I think this matters—and matters profoundly, completely, and ultimately—is that if Christopher Alexander is correct, then to heal our world we must learn to make it, and ourselves, whole. Step by step, and piece by piece. But if we cannot even speak in reasonable circles of this notion—if it is so occluded from rational thought as to be omitted from the discussion—then I fear the modern conversation is missing the most essential.

I started this blog to set into motion certain utterings of my heart I wasn’t sure I’d be able to say. I began writing poetry here, and I’ve begun writing fiction as I can, because sometimes you can come at it this most directly through the uncanny mobilization of deep awareness into form that we call art. I know we all return from the world with our particular discontentments. We each have our individual disappointments. But I suspect they are all related, all the same even. I suspect all of our hurt and disappointment and suffering is the product of failing to comprehend and relate viscerally to, in our daily lives, the pervasive wholeness that lives and moves and gives us being.

There are countless points of particularity to arbitrate in the meanwhile. But the specifics are, for me, not the level at which healing will come. Until we come home to this, to what is simple, beautiful and immediate, and truly powerful, our world will remain broken in its reckless gallop. I feel this as strongly as anything I’ve felt in my life, and I had to say it. At least once.

You are my beginning and my end, my true desire, and my completion. We are only this together.

On Intellectual Unwillingness, Part 4

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Reflections / Science

In an effort to simplify terms, I’m going to describe persons of religious affiliation as “Rafters” and persons of scientific/materialist affiliation as “Plancks.” Recognizing there is a broad spectrum of thought in both of these categories, I’m largely hoping to address certain fundamentalist, dogmatic positions that confound meaningful interaction between these two great pillars of human endeavor. These are the hardened geometries of thought that each side seems reluctant to soften in meaningful dialogue.

I want to start by describing what I mean by fundamentalist and dogmatic, and how I think these terms might apply to each of these groups. A fundamentalist, dogmatic approach is one which precludes certain positions or possibilities from being considered on the basis of preconceived notions, and which may, in the extreme, function simply through denial. In the most general sense, the Rafters are behaving in a fundamentalist, dogmatic way when they ignore clear evidence in the world around them that differs from a particular sacred text. The Plancks are behaving in a fundamentalist, dogmatic way when they dismiss ideas and experiences that appear to lie outside of the norms they have established for what the universe can be.

On the Rafters’ side of the house, I think there is simply too much reluctance to look beyond a particular text when pursuing spiritual insights and knowledge. There is also the mistaken impression that we cannot make new discoveries regarding the nature of our reality, including our understanding of God. I think, for instance, that what is termed revelation is ongoing and never-ending. It is simply part of life. While I can appreciate that opening up the spectrum of inputs that merit consideration brings with it a tremendous foreboding, I think such an approach is necessary. It is not only intellectually honest, but of critical importance if one is to truly relate to other people who see the world differently. If the truth is true, there need be no fear of losing it. And if the truth is true, it should be true independent of any particular book or dogma.

There is a way to approach this sort of sea change gently I think. I wouldn’t advocate a sudden turning of one’s back on all that one has known and valued, but a careful exploration of those beliefs and values that resonate most clearly with the compass of the human heart. My plan is to return to this issue in a future discussion because of how important it is. In the meanwhile I want to acknowledge that I appreciate the profound psychological difficulties associated with facing what appears to be the loss of meaning, of certainty, and of personal orientation.

Turning to the Plancks, they have made declarations about the fundamental nature of the universe that are, for me, equally as untenable as the idea this planet was created a few thousand years ago by a judgmental, bearded God who lives in the clouds. The Plancks have presumed to know the type of reality our reality ought to be, and insist that what mysteries remain are but the particulars of working these notions out. The claim on which I feel there’s overreaching is this: the universe is not a functional whole. It’s a valid and perhaps necessary convention for doing science to assume that all the properties of phenomena are local, and that the universe possesses no faculties, properties or dimensions but the ones before us, but I’m not convinced this idea has any real claim to universal validity. It is a convention and should be acknowledged as such.

Related ideas, to make my concerns clearer, are that the universe has no interiority; that a deep relatedness of all phenomena does not exist; that a timeless, dimensionless field of being does not exist; and that only human experiences which are externally replicable provide insight into reality. Let me try and reduce this down somehow, as it is admittedly a nebulous set of postulates. I would sum this up by saying the assertion by the Plancks that the universe cannot possibly be the unified, demonstrable form of a dimensionless, living wholeness is an arbitrary one.

But for a difficulty as uncomfortable in its own right as asking a Rafter to lift his eyes from a particular text, there is no reason this choice of convention by the Plancks should not be acknowledged for the assertion that it is. Asking if the universe could be considered as one whole body—one whole living structure—does not require that the tasks of science be abandoned. It does not put QED into jeopardy, or the theory of evolution. It doesn’t suggest that nature no longer obeys natural laws, or unfold according to discernible principles. It merely asks why it is necessary to divorce those understandings from the possibility that they are simply “how wholeness moves” in this world.

Stepping back again, if you strip the fundamentalism and dogma from these Rafters and Plancks, what remains?

I think for the Rafters, the acknowledgment that existence is a unified wholeness about which we are still learning requires that certain ideas be set aside. These ideas include the notion that one group or population of people is somehow entitled to special divine rights or privileges; the notion that any particular religion is complete and superior to another, rather than being a stage of unfolding understanding of this universe and our place within it; and the notion that to be good and to be meaningful we must adhere to certain dogmatic views and behaviors. These ideas not only divide us, they are incoherent with the possibility that all of existence is unified and inseparable. What remains is the possibility that the sort of wholeness that ultimately exists, which we often call “God”, could be loving. What remains is the possibility that we are each intimately connected to the life of the universe, to the timeless and dimensionless heart of being, and that through this connection we may be inspired, guided, and supported.

Where we find it difficult to square our ideals of a loving universe with the factual realities of this planet, we have opportunities to ask new questions. If it seems implausible that the universe could be a fundamental expression of love while people on earth yet suffer, then maybe our ideas about what “God” is, what this world is, and who we are, have been incomplete. If it seems obvious that praying for a particular outcome does not always work as we expect it should, then maybe our expectations for prayer and our understanding of all the factors involved, both within and without, have been misplaced. Maybe there is more to the picture of life in this universe than we know. I personally think this is so. I personally think what is true is as great and beautiful as any eventuality the Rafters have taught us to expect, and I don’t think any of the work the Plancks are doing undermines this.

What remains for the Plancks is the possibility that we can learn ever more about the nature of order in this universe. I’ve never been absolutely clear on what the Plancks stand to lose if the idea of a whole, living universe with a backbone of timeless connectivity were accepted. I suspect the answer is something along the lines of causality, or a perceived threat to the very idea on which science rests, which is that all we observe may be explained in terms of fixed natural laws. If the universe is truly alive, it may do something unexpected, and how can we do science on that basis? Well, there is certainly no reason to stop in the short-term. We’ll know the difficulties when we see them, and the point at which we confront the unknown need not be taken as the point at which we presume everything beyond is magical and arbitrary. There is nothing to suggest a universe with the property of wholeness is a puerile one.

I simply see the need to accept that our knowledge is incomplete, and that it is possible some individuals and cultures could have access to knowledge and types of experience that seem foreign to another’s notion of what reality is and how it works. It is possible that the types of questions and research the Plancks presently undertake will evolve into unforeseen domains as more is learned. It may even be true that the idea of the universe as a unified, whole and living architecture—a life of which all of its contents equally partake—could lead to interesting, testable ideas. A story for another day perhaps. The point is that I see no arbitrary reason for the Plancks to stop investigating what interests them.

What remains when we are honest about what conclusions have truly been earned, is a vast and beautiful territory where many, many human beings could collaborate in novel ways, without the arbitrary limitations on interaction the most polarized positions of the Plancks and Rafters tend to demand. It pains me that we struggle so to recognize the possibilities alive in one another’s positions, and I hope to see the day in which thought leaders on both sides of this artificial divide make the effort to construct the most complete picture of reality of which we are capable. I am convinced it will contain coherent, evolving ideas about what it means to exist in a loving universe, alongside of equally coherent, evolving ideas of how this loving universe continually comes into being and manages its accounts of energy, material and information.

On Intellectual Unwillingness, Part 3

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Course Ideas / Dialogues / Science

Genuine, transformative conversation hinges upon the willingness to understand and value the experiences and perspectives of another. An effort is made to take on board another’s ideas and listen for all the places where they intersect, both comfortably and uncomfortably, with our own. Where they don’t fit very well we have an opportunity for exploration, and for new understanding perhaps, but to explore this territory together we must resist the temptation to be rigid in our perceptions. We all must soften our internal geometries, at least for a time, so that we can join in the shared space of dialogue.

If we do not do this, we end up trying to exert a particular view onto another. We harden in our positions and there is little choice but to chisel away on the other’s in order to alleviate our discomfort. We end up making speeches, or scoring points, instead of having conversation. Without setting aside preconceived notions of what we want a particular encounter to be, of who we think we are and who we think the other is and has been, the possibility of true exchange is stymied. Transformative conversation is a space of shared possibility. It requires a certain freedom to move in the unexpected ways that it will.

When I think in these terms it is clear to me that the video I cited two posts ago by Richard Dawkins was not an attempt at genuine, transformative conversation. I also see that my reply wasn’t either, which is why it troubled me. Both of these displays were speeches. They were selfish acts in a sense, not unifying ones. I think if we want to have the sorts of conversations that can lead to genuine transformation—not the “fixing” of one supposedly malfunctioning party or the other, but the renewal of the entire architecture of shared spaces where we meet—then we must suspend our need to be right, and focus instead on being caretakers of one another’s humanity. We must value one another’s dreams, acknowledge one another’s experiences, have compassion for one another’s suffering, and be honest about our own. We must, in essence, join with one another.

When conversation breaks down it is quite often, in my opinion, because of an unwillingness to appreciate one another’s positions. This stems from the profound difficulty we face in truly adopting, at least temporarily, one another’s perspectives. To actually achieve a place of mutual sharing requires a certain paradoxical accomplishment within us: we must decouple our sense of identity from particular ideas, histories and concepts so that we are free to change our inner shape without feeling provoked, while at the same time anchoring the reality of our existence to a stable position. An example of a stable position would be the profound, unconditional love and appreciation for another being. This state can be cultivated, if we so choose and desire, and it is invulnerable to any particular ideas or concepts that may present themselves.

When we fail to do this, we make unreasonable demands on one another, and we find ourselves unable to join in a meaningful way in the space of conversation. I think when good ideas are not considered, this is the reason why. When we’re polarized and think our only choices are to fight it out, or concede territory that leaves us wounded at some level, this is the reason why. It is because we’re unwilling to share in the sacrament, the ceremony, the mutual affirmation of one another that is unity, for all sorts of reasons. What I think is true, is that the reasons we offer for stepping away from unity are never good enough.

A cultural polarity on which I’d like to focus these considerations is the gap that exists between advocates of scientific materialism, and advocates of the existence of a loving God. In my mind, there are perfectly good ideas not being explored by either side of this divide. The positions to which I observe many people clinging, on both sides of this issue, are not entirely justified in my opinion, and were the matter to be considered in the light of mutual respect and admiration for the important aspects of human consciousness and well-being that each party safeguards, I think there is room for a much more fruitful exchange.

I’ll stop here for today in order to keep these posts at a reasonable length, and in my next article will begin to explore particular dimensions to this conversation that I think preclude productive exchange. They hinge upon the sort of unwillingness to deeply consider one another’s positions that I’ve tried to describe above, and for me the truth is that we all suffer when we draw these lines between ourselves. Nobody wins when some of us lose. If we truly wish to end the polarized divides that shackle us all to ineffectual conversations, I think we’ll need to place unity first. And I think we’ll find, if we explore these ideas as openly and honestly as possible, that nobody needs to lose…

On Intellectual Unwillingness, Part 2

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Science

I’ve been reflecting on my previous post and thinking I’m not too happy about what I did there. I’ve been feeling a cocktail of embarrassment and shame actually. I felt strongly about the ideas I discussed—ideas that I love about water and the human body and how this universe works—but also I felt angry about the way some people have used their influence to progress certain ideas. While there is nothing wrong with anger in and of itself, how it expressed is important, and I realize in looking back that in my anger I took the internal step of making Richard Dawkins the “other.” At least I did so within my own mind.

I wish to apologize for that. If ever there were a step I’d like to advocate not taking with one another it’s that one. While I don’t like the way Richard has communicated on certain issues, that is secondary to the fact we share a common heart. That is the reality, and it is far more important than being right about something. When we attempt to cleave ourselves from one another in that interior way, we are creating suffering. You may have sensed this or felt yourself on the periphery of that unfortunate state from my writing this last time out, for which I am sorry.

Being right at the expense of another is a weighty thing, and a troubling thing. I felt the weight of it fairly quickly, and I don’t want to function that way. I do want to explore some ideas that come to mind when I listen to Sam Harris’s podcast, but I want to find a way to do it much more positively. I want to do it in an inspiring and uplifting way, and I will.

I also want to note before jumping into a second piece that I’ve retitled the series Intellectual Unwillingness. The term intellectual dishonesty can come across fairly strongly, and I’m not attempting to suggest that Sam Harris or any of his guests are dishonest people, or attempting any sort of nefarious manipulation of the truth. I’m simply suggesting that deliberate choices are being made about what is and is not included in particular discussions, that those choices are interesting to me, because I think there are some stones being left unturned, so to speak. As I noted in a comment to the last post, this omission of particular ideas is better categorized as an intellectual unwillingness than in terms that suggest any sort of character flaw. These are certainly differences of opinion on what is reasonable.

So I wanted to say these things, and will return soon with a more positive offering. Thank you for bearing with this interruption in the regularly scheduled programming…

On Intellectual Honesty, Part 1

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Science

One of the great things about blogging is the encounter of new ideas and voices—new, at least, in the sense that they were new to me, and I might not have found them otherwise. Recently I’ve been listening to Sam Harris’s podcast Waking Up, and been very much enjoying it. I’ve listened to about eight episodes now, and have begun to hear recurring themes and arguments, so I think I’ve started to grasp where Sam is coming from. What I enjoy most about the show is the opportunity to listen to brilliant, articulate people—albeit from a limited range of focus at times—discuss interesting ideas. I’ve really, really enjoyed it.

A concept that comes up from time to time is intellectual honesty. It’s one with which I resonate, and which I believe is profoundly important, but it’s not one that I find is particularly well-applied in all of the arguments I’ve heard. I’m not certain the breaches I find are intentional or not, or that those to whom I’ve listened would even agree with me that they have omitted plausible positions from their conversations, but it seems to me that people of the cognitive caliber as appear on this show would be capable of discerning these additional plausible vantages and at least discussing them. It is thus remarkable to me that they do not. I am left to conclude that Sam and certain of his guests do not consider these positions at all relevant, and therefore there would be no intellectual dishonesty from their perspective: these positions are, in their minds, simply not worth discussing. But from my perspective that is not always so. And I think it matters, because it leaves potentially interesting opportunities for dialogue and frank discussion unexplored. So I want to think out loud about a few of these instances in a series of posts.

(I apologize in advance for the length of this first post, and will shorten them moving forward!)

The first example of intellectual dishonesty to which I’ll point is a simple one, and it is not taken from the podcast. I’m beginning with this merely to give an example of what I’m speaking about when I say intellectual dishonesty. There is a video Richard Dawkins made—and Richard was one of the guests on Sam’s podcast to whom I’ve enjoyed listening—that is available on YouTube in which he takes a run at homeopathy. This is only two minutes long, and admittedly stripped of its context, which was a two-part show Dawkins aired called Enemies of Reason. I watched a portion of the larger episode to see if I’d missed something that this shorter segment did not discuss, but didn’t find anything to sway my opinion. That said, I’m certainly open to feedback if I missed a mitigating segment somewhere.

The premise of the video is that a medicine cannot work if the active ingredient of the medicine is not chemically present in the dosing mechanism. He makes the rib-hurting argument that mathematically speaking, to “imbibe even one molecule of the active substance [of a homeopathic preparation], you’d need to imbibe all the atoms in the solar system…” Then he suggests that homeopaths have known all along their formulations are “just water” and goes on to suggest that if the notion water has any active information properties—e.g. “memory”, the posited mechanism of homeopathy—that would require that we concede we’re all drinking a homeopathic preparation of Oliver Cromwell’s urine when we enjoy a glass of water. It’s brilliant theater, of course, but I find it to be intellectually dishonest.

To begin with, I don’t believe proponents of homeopathy suggest it is a chemical medicine, like aspirin or Crestor, but rather one based on the premise that water can be a carrier of biologically active information. So the entire opening argument is based on a misrepresentation of homeopathy, which Dawkins knows. He starts there anyway, which is basically the rousing defeat of an argument the counter party hasn’t even made, then proceeds to suggest the notion that water could store or transmit information signals is obviously ludicrous, because if it were true we’d be drinking a medicinal preparation of the urine of everyone who has ever lived. This latter point is itself misleading on at least three counts, which I’ll attempt to describe. I’ll ignore the obvious fallacy, which is that if something can be rendered in profound hyperbole, it must be wrong.

First, homeopathy does actually have protocols for the preparation and storage of the medications, which differ from the conditions and energetic transformations water undergoes in the natural environment. So there could be a way in which the environment is not a homeopathic preparation of all that has ever been. To ignore this is to suggest that either there is no protocol to homeopathy whatsoever (which is obviously false), or to presume the protocols simply don’t matter. Assuming the latter, Dawkins thus begins with the unstated supposition that homeopathic preparations make zero difference to water as compared to its original state in the natural environment. This approach is intellectually dishonest because the starting premise—that the mechanism of homeopathy simply doesn’t work—is also his conclusion.

Second, I’m not expert in homeopathy but it requires no effort on my part to wonder if there might not be mechanisms of removing stored information from water and purifying it at that level (so that we’re not all drinking medicinal preparations of urine). Turns out there probably is, and that evaporation by sunlight—the key driver of the water cycle—works by literally overcoming the weak electromagnetic bonds between water molecules in the liquid state, thus destroying (in all likelihood) any stored energetic patterns within a volume of water. I don’t know what a homeopath would think of this–it’s just an example of one idea a person might consider–but obviously Dawkins doesn’t either.

And thirdly, while the science of water physics has advanced tremendously since the time Richard crafted this presentation, even at the time he gave it the scientific community had begun to explore the admittedly controversial idea that water might, in fact, be capable of storing and transmitting biologically active information. Dawkins’ video aired almost ten years after the work of Jacques Benveniste, which was published in Nature, in which Benveniste reported that white blood cells could be incited to produce an immune response when exposed to dilutions of antibodies so dilute they did not contain any of the antibodies themselves.

Benveniste’s work, the ensuing criticism, and his response to it, is uniquely interesting theater of its own–and it is worth noting that I believe the scientific community would have cited a replication failure of Benveniste’s work at the time Dawkins’ video was aired–but there are two issues at play here. One is the notion, which under girds Dawkins’ argument in the video, that phenomenal observations should not be scientifically reported without the supply of a theoretical explanation as to how they occurred. This was I believe a large argument against Benveniste’s work: the observation can’t be true because there’s no known mechanism for it to occur. This makes no sense to me as an argument, since new theories are often based on observations that cannot be explained, at least at face value, from known theories. This idea that nothing can be reported as observed without being explained at the same time is a ridiculous standard. How could science progress without admitting both novel predictions from new theories, and novel observations that require those theories?

But the even greater issue is that at the time of Dawkins’ video, Benveniste’s work was not the only purported incidence of new science or technology involving water memory effects. The Austrian naturalist Johann Grander received an award from the Russian Academy of Natural Science in 2001 for his work on this subject. Grander was not a scientist, and his proposed mechanisms do not use the vocabulary of science and thus were easily dismissed by those who wished to do so. But the Russian Academy of Natural Science gave its award only after conducting laboratory work. I know because I traveled to Austria, met with members of Grander’s family and organization, and was shown the results. (I was working at the time with their US-based representatives, interested to see if the technology could reduce the need for toxic chemistries in industrial cooling systems.) When I asked them why they were not published, the answer was that it was impossible to publish research on a commercial technology in a scientific journal when the operating principle of the technology was not well understood. This does actually make sense to me, because it is not just a novel observation in nature, but the observation of a device present in the laboratory at the time of the experiment whose influence on the experiment is claimed to be decisive to the outcome, but which is not understood by the scientists in the least. How could that fly? I wouldn’t attempt to publish that paper either. And since Grander felt protective of his intellectual property, the systems of science and commerce did not align to incent the best possible outcome.

Dawkins conceivably did not know about Grander’s work, or the award from the Russian academy, but I believe it is reasonable to assume that if you or I, as a scientist, were going to air a program to millions of people and make a few sweeping declarations on a subject, the onus would be on us to take stock of not only what is known in a field, but also to take stock of where it might be going. Which doors are appearing? Which are open and which are closed? Is it even a legitimate field of inquiry? Why or why not? There were, in fact, a fair amount of ideas percolating at the time.

Many years prior to the airing of Dawkins’ video, a paper was published by the Italian scientist Emilio del Guidice (in conjunction with other authors) in which water’s novel heat storage capability was explained using the properties of quantum coherence, which are derived from the application of quantum physics to solid state systems. Basically, the value for the specific heat of water (the scientific term for the quantity of energy a substance can store per unit of mass) as well as a prediction of how that value changed with water’s temperature, was derived in this paper from the mathematical theories of quantum physics. The purported reason water stores more energy per unit mass than it otherwise ought to—being made of relatively light gases, hydrogen and oxygen—is that it spontaneously forms resonant volumes involving many molecules at once. If water was a chest of drawers, these vibrational modes essentially represent drawers you could use for storage that other liquids generally do not possess. It turns out that water, compared to other materials, has a lot more drawers you can hide energy inside.

Related, at least in hindsight, the German physicist Herbert Frohlich had also made some ground in the several decades preceding Dawkins’ video in which he posited that part of what makes living systems possible, and unique, are long-range electromagnetic interactions, or coherence, and the associated energy storages such coherence enables within the organism. Meaning what? Meaning that in living organisms, which are predominately water, considerable energy is stored in non-thermal mechanisms which are highly ordered, and insulated from degradation. We’re not just thermal baths in other words, but liquid crystals. These ideas have led today to really interesting breakthroughs in our understanding of the role of water in the organism, and also to our understanding of water in general. And in hindsight it is not too difficult to see how del Giudice’s work and Frohlich’s work relate. I only know because they were both referenced in other books I’ve read on the subject, and I looked them up. Dawkins’ argument hinges, in part, on the notion that medicine can only be chemical in nature, not electronic (or information-based), yet evidence of the importance of electronic states to the viability of living tissue was already gaining considerable traction. At the time the video aired, important relationships between biology and quantum physics had already become increasingly mainstream, and water was related to much of this research.

Could Dawkins’ have been ignorant to all of this? Perhaps. But he knew enough to know that the proposed mechanism for homeopathy was information storage within water systems. He certainly knew about Benveniste’s work. And he easily could have known about the other work I’ve mentioned as well. I did, after all, and my time for pursuing such diversions was quite limited. I had a full-time job (my work with the Grander organization was a sideline) and was simply an interested person exploring the world via dial-up internet.

So Richard Dawkins needn’t like these ideas, or admit them into the canon of his personal philosophy. But I do think the video is a straightforward example of intellectual dishonesty because it makes fallacious arguments, and because it takes advantage of the ignorance of the audience for which it was intended. But it is certainly great fodder for the home team.

(To Be Continued…)