Transformation

comments 8
Course Ideas / Reflections

Our world is being stretched. The tightened skin becomes translucent. It’s like a magic trick, only the illusion is punctured instead of unfurled. What’s really there can no longer be hidden. The make-up is sloughing off. It’s challenging, but clearly it’s needed.

We have far to fall. But the ground is close. As close as we make it. That’s because the ground is us. We are the ones who will catch each other. Not the institutions we’ve made. Not the halls of justice, which fail us in our time of need. But people. People are shining. People are making the difference.

It is true we are falling. But we are falling from the limbs of unwholesome dreams. Dreams of empire. Of economic supremacy. Of earthly power and glory.

We invented toilet paper in 1857. If a generation is 25 years, then we’re in the seventh generation since this fantastic invention. That’s one of the brands we use here at home. There is such beautiful irony in this, I swear. I’m not trying to minimize the impact of this disease, but our capabilities today are unprecedented. We probably don’t know the true mortality rate of Covid-19, but let’s call it 3% or 4%. That’s a quarter of the quantity of the world’s population that doesn’t have enough to eat. According to the World Health Organization, there were 2.3 million new tuberculosis cases in 2018 that were attributable to malnutrition.

I comprehend and grieve with those who will face profound suffering in their lives and in their families because of this virus. At the same time, it is remarkable to me that not that long ago the Native Americans faced smallpox that ravaged whole populations, or political forces beyond their control that deceived, pillaged and killed them, or forced them to look on, powerless, as the bison were systematically exterminated. This isn’t like the days when Africans were shackled and dragged across the sea en masse to be beaten and worked to death and spit upon in service of the elite nation-states and economies of the world. These aren’t the days when immigrants to the United States worked themselves to death on docks, in factories and meat packing plants—laboring through disease and famine and drought.

It’s surely not fair to compare one age to the next. We are not those people, and these are not those times. But it’s wrong to think the disease was different in each of these ages. It’s incorrect to think the disease that kills most human beings in our day today is any different than the diseases of the past, because the disease was greed. The disease was specialness, elitism, the hunger for power, and the fear of falling into the misfortunes of the many. The fear of losing what we’ve gained. The fear of being like everyone else. The world hasn’t changed with the onset of Covid-19—it is only being revealed to us once again.

Hopefully we see it for what it is, and hopefully we realize the profound gift we all are to one another.

There is a line from A Course of Love that seems most apropos for this revelation, and that is the idea that in accordance with the Laws of Love, There is no loss, only gain. For what do we lose, but our specialness and our privilege? And what do we gain, but the humbling appreciation of our mutuality?

This quote is from the second Treatise in A Course of Love: An understanding of the mutuality of needs will aid you in being honest about your needs, thus allowing them to be met. Then the need to define or to identify them ceases. Your needs only continue to be brought to your awareness as needs until your trust in their immediate and ongoing fulfillment is complete. Once this trust is realized you will no longer think in terms of needs at all. Once you are no longer concerned with needs and the meeting of needs you will no longer be concerned with special relationships. You will realize that there is no loss but only gain involved in letting them go.

It is specialness that distorts the truth. The truth that all can be provided for.

These are hardly the worst of the worst times that we have faced. And again, with a full heart for those who suffer directly as a result of this disease, and for all those who suffer from all of the various diseases manifest in our world, I would like to say that Covid-19 is gentle as far as wake-up calls go. It is not a scourge, but a crack in the façade of a normalcy that isn’t working, and hasn’t been working, and which we don’t know how to fix without a nudge or two in the direction of our shared humanity.

I am humbled by those delivering groceries to the elderly, by those singing opera from the balconies, by those working from home while caring for their children. I had a conference call last week: five senior managers in track suits at their laptops. It was heartening. We are all the same. Not in our fear, but in our needs. In our humanity. And when we acknowledge this, when we no longer accept as status quo the specialness and power-mongering that divide us, the world will transform.

And it will be good.

What Are Organisms?

comments 11
Book Reviews

What is an organism?

It’s not an easy question to answer. When faced with such a challenge, it is natural to employ metaphors that help us formulate some preliminary ideas about what it is we’re dealing with. These metaphors relate something that is mysterious to us, like the organism, to one that is well known to us, such as the machine. We know what machines are, and generally how they function, and so this metaphor gives us a point of entry into the analysis of organisms. What are the organism’s parts? How do they interact? When the organism breaks down, what parts must be repaired or replaced? Where does the energy come from that makes it work? And so on and so forth.

The challenge in our reliance on metaphors is that they can limit our understanding as easily as they can expand it. When faced with a subject as tantalizing as the study of organisms, the metaphor can preclude us from noticing essential qualities of their structure or organization, because the map, in its usefulness, inadvertently becomes the territory. It’s not that we don’t recognize these differences—we know that machines do not repair themselves, grow, or reproduce for instance, while organisms do—but there is a tendency to insist the metaphor still holds. A sufficiently complex machine, for instance, might very well do these things. And so we can continue to classify the organism as a machine, albeit an especially profound one, and then continue our search for mechanisms that underlie its various functions. The result can be misleading: the conflation of machinery with life itself, or the reduction of life to apparatus alone.

Machines as we know them today are still rather brute devices that rely on simplistic physical and chemical relationships. Cranks, pulleys and shafts convey forces. Fuel and oxygen combust to release energy in confined spaces. Electricity and magnetism are channeled through tiny circuits, or harnessed to produce linear or rotary motion in subassemblies. And we can do amazing things with this toolkit. But we cannot explain organisms. What if the machine model obfuscates fundamental questions about organisms that might lead to new insights? To what then, might we compare life, if not a machine?

In Mae-Wan Ho’s book The Rainbow and the Worm, she shows that other metaphors of the organism are equally relevant—the jazz band, the liquid crystal, and the rainbow, among others. She focuses on the intersection of twenty-first century physics with modern biology to show that organisms are at least as advanced in the mechanisms they deploy as our present understanding of the natural world allows us to comprehend.

There are two key aspects of biological systems that Mae-Wan highlights. The first is that life exhibits a comprehensive dynamic order at the quantum scale, which none of the machinery we know today does. Quantum mechanics has certainly played a vital role in our technological progress, and is essential to such technologies as GPS, satellite communications, smartphones, computers, and magnetic imaging, but it is not the case that the comprehensive atomic structure of the physical devices we use everyday is contingent upon these functions. For a few discrete subsystems or subassemblies it may be, but for the bulk of the material in a manufactured object, the dynamic interrelationships of the atomic structure are irrelevant to the object’s core function. The classical properties alone are sufficient. This is not the case with organisms.

Quantum mechanics is known today for its spookiness, but at its foundation it resolved a couple of key questions that classical mechanics could not. It’s worth noting that none of these early breakthroughs were based upon the head-scratching quantum mechanics that receives most of the press these days. They were based on the idea that energy, matter and light exist in minimum, discrete quantities. Two key challenges of classical theories that were resolved by this realization were the so-called ultraviolet catastrophe and the mystery of the electron’s orbit around the atom.

The former is the theoretical prediction that the radiant energy emitted from objects at high temperatures should approach infinity, but it does not. The reason is the quantum. With regards to the latter, in classical mechanics the electron should emit electromagnetic radiation as it flies around the atom, causing it to lose energy and crash into the nucleus. But it doesn’t. The reason is that quantum physics only allows electrons to occupy specific orbitals, and they don’t lose energy by zooming around in a given orbital, only by changing orbits, which means atoms don’t arbitrarily collapse.

It turns out that the structure of living organisms is entirely dependent on these aspects of quantum physics. In contrast to systems of relatively disorganized molecules like chicken soup, the atmosphere, or the water in the sea, organisms store a considerably higher fraction of their energy in bound quantum states. By the latter I mean atoms linked together by stable chemical bonds that store a great deal of energy, but are stable because of the quantum physics described above. Life stores energy in molecular trapdoors for later retrieval. Machines do not do this.

Mae-Wan notes that if all of the energy contained in living organisms were converted to thermal energy—as opposed to the electronic form in which it is actually stored and utilized—the human body temperature would be upwards of 3,000 degrees Kelvin. To put this in perspective, the surface of the Earth is about 288 degrees Kelvin, and the surface of the sun about 5,780 degrees Kelvin. Thankfully for us, we are not the thermal engines we thought we were.

Related to this, not only do organisms store energy electronically, they use it electronically. Living organisms utilize energy with close to 100% efficiency when transforming it from one form to another. This is remarkable when one considers that the electricity grid of an industrialized nation operates at about 40% efficiency, plus or minus, when converting the stored chemical energy of fossil fuels to delivered electricity. (Renewable electricity systems are even less efficient, though efficiency is not really a meaningful metric to apply when comparing them to fossil-fuel based technologies.)  The chemical energy of hydrocarbons such as oil and natural gas is in many ways similar to the stored energy in living cells—the energy is contained in the stable bonds that link one atom to the next to form large structures of carbon and hydrogen—but our industrial processes come nowhere close to the efficiency of living organisms in converting such energy into actual work. As organisms, we move our muscles, breath, digest food, sing opera, and think with essentially zero energetic waste. It’s not that organisms don’t use energy. They do. But unlike machines, they use it one quantum at a time.

A second key element of Mae-Wan’s synthesis in The Rainbow and the Worm is long-range order, or coherence. This is a slightly complicated subject in that coherence is a word that could have both classical and quantum physics meanings, but the essence of the two is very similar. Classical coherence is the condition in which a system of oscillators share a common phase. You could imagine several tuning forks, each with the same natural frequency. If you struck them all at roughly the same time, they would each ring with the same tone, but due to inherent variations in when you actually struck each one, they would not initially be in phase. Over some period of time, however, because the energy they exchange with one another through sound waves impacts their vibrations, they would settle into a condition in which they not only rang with the same tone, but did so in phase.

Quantum coherence is more difficult for me to distinguish or fully understand, but real world examples are lasers and superconductivity. In a laser, the light emitted from a large population of atoms is the same frequency, and, like the classical definition above, is completely in phase. This is because all of the electrons that are changing state to emit the light are undergoing a transition from the identical high energy orbit to the identical low energy orbit in their respective atoms. The light they each emit is thus of the same frequency. In a laser, there are mechanisms in place to “pump” the system which results in a synchronicity of the light emissions. (Interestingly, Mae-Wan notes that the organisms may utilize metabolic “pumping” for similar purposes in the body.) Superconductivity occurs when electricity can be conveyed through a conductor with zero resistance. This also is related to a global phase relationship in the electrons within the material. This type of coherence exists at the quantum scale, but is quite similar to the classical coherence described above.

But in the quantum world there is another sort of coherence, and this occurs when various possible states of a system are in phase. This is where we get into the spookier realities of quantum mechanics, in which, for instance, one atom or electron can be said to occupy multiple states simultaneously. This state is a coherent one, because all the possible states are in phase, and it is only when we make a measurement, or when the system otherwise interacts with the environment, that a particular state is selected. It does this by “de-cohering”, or breaking phase with the other possible states. It is this type of coherence that we are attempting to leverage in quantum computing. I believe it is this type of coherence that has been observed in the photosynthetic systems of organisms.

I think the important aspect of this topic overall is what coherence affords to the systems in which it exists. Mae-Wan points to several salient features of coherent systems. She writes, “Coherent excitations can account for many of the most characteristic properties of living organisms that I have drawn your attention to at the beginning of this book: long range order and coordination; rapid and efficiency energy transfer, as well as extreme sensitivity to specific signals.”

A couple of key examples Mae-Wan uses are the sensitivity of the human eye to an individual photon, which relies on the amplification of the signal by thousands of receptors with virtual simultaneity, and the processes associated with muscle contraction, in which billions of molecular operations per second are carried out with perfect coordination. With regards to the latter, she cites an experiment in which the energy from individual ATP molecules was utilized by four cycles of cross-bridge formation between actin and myosin—the fundamental, repeated action associated with muscle contraction. How could the energy from one molecule be shared over four individual cycles? Through coherence, she says, which allows for multi-mode storage and transfer of energy in both space and time.

This is where the jazz band analogy comes into play. Various members of an ensemble may depart temporarily from a common beat, but after enough measures there will be a return to the original “heartbeat” of the piece. The jazz band metaphor is about multiple rhythms occurring simultaneously without loss of the overarching unity that forms the whole. In the example of the muscle contraction, energy is dispersed over all of the various modes of the system, which allows it to be used in non-linear ways.

This might all sound like science fiction, but there is beautiful physical evidence for this idea. Using a microscopy technique known to reveal the crystalline order of various mineral specimens, Mae-Wan and her collaborators showed that the molecular structure of living tissue exists in a liquid crystalline state. The molecular order of this state is visible as dynamic bands of color within the living tissue—colors that are visible because the tissue exhibits the property of birefringence (which it loses quickly when the tissue dies).  The images on the cover of her book below were developed using this microscopy technique. Speaking of this discovery, she writes, “The colour generated and its intensity (the brightness) depends respectively on the structure of the particular molecules (the intrinsic anisotropy of the molecules) and their degree of coherent order.” (Emphasis contained in the original.)

So what is an organism then? Who knows!? What we can say is that unlike any machinery we’ve invented to date, it is a self-directed energetic structure of nested, multi-modal order. It is something like a symphony, or a jazz band—a dynamically evolving wholeness in which each part is an integral expression of the wholeness itself. What I love most about The Rainbow and the Worm is Mae-Wan’s demonstration that our understanding of life is limited only by our imagination…

The Blind Watchmaker, Cont’d

comments 11
Book Reviews / Reflections / Science

This week I finished the audio version of The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, which I discussed in my previous post, and I’d like to give a few responses to the book as a whole now that I’ve completed it.

Dawkins’ overall objective with this work is to describe how the dizzying mélange of organized complexity we find in the biological world can be explained by the properties of non-living matter, the blind mutations of genetic material in organisms, and the power of cumulative selection. He does an admirable job of this, but by the time I’d completed the book I realized I had questions about things that weren’t discussed by Dawkins. Also, the digressions he chose to make at the expense of adhering to the essential components of his explanatory thesis, ultimately disappointed me.

One of the most important assertions of the book is that there’s no point in the process of evolution we cannot explain from the previous. The trick to understanding the stunning complexity we behold in the world around us is to take something bedazzling, like the eye, and then imagine a series of very small steps that might have occurred over a very, very long time to produce it. If you put some sincere effort into it, says Dawkins, you’ll see there is some step-size small enough that you are able to imagine it. I agree this is doable.

What’s hard to envision is how there’s enough time for all of the teeny-tiny steps to have occurred, but Dawkins says that’s not supposed to be obvious. Our brains are not adapted to assess what a million years of time really is, never mind billions. An hour, sure. A lifetime, of course. We have some basic comprehension of a decade, a few generations of family, a century. Maybe a millennium. But a million years? It’s like staring into the sun.

The truth, he says, is that there’s been plenty of time. At known mutation rates, one biologist Dawkins referenced—whose name unfortunately escapes me—has calculated that a mouse could evolve to be the size of an elephant in just 60,000 years, if it weren’t for the obvious push-back such a mouse would receive from the forces of natural selection. In short, time is not the issue.

(There’s also chance enough for the really tricky parts, but that’s for another day.)

Natural selection is a cumulative selection process, meaning that it operates on inherited characteristics, and at each step of the way selects only the best-adapted individuals for reproduction. Because of its cumulative nature, it is more powerful than we may guess. It is sensitive, for instance, to the minuscule advantage delivered by each of the very small steps we envisioned above. In one example—the development of wings—he notes that a small flap of skin between the limbs or fingers of a rodent, no matter how small it might be, would help them navigate gaps between tree branches with just that much more reach and control. As a result, the organisms possessing this dermal oddity would have an advantage.

But how does such a sensitive process work when an organism is developing everything at once—eyes, ears, livers, brains, wings, bones, skin, hair, hearts, digestive tracts, vocal chords, etc.? Do we break all of those into tiny steps and overlay them? Clearly some of these must precede others, so it’s never really all at once. But it’s also clear that organisms evolve as wholes—simultaneously, if you will, with respect to one another, the environment, and the characteristics they already possess, which are already profoundly interwoven. Dawkins never addresses the question of how such a highly sensitive process selects for all of these mutually interacting adaptations concurrently. It might be a bad question on my part—so bad he didn’t think it needed to be addressed—but I’m curious.

In a chapter that comes much later, he provides an explanation for why the fossil record doesn’t show a steady development of particular features. Skull sizes in mammals for instance, would in theory follow some sort of progression. As brains enlarged in response to the increasing complexity of physical organisms and the adaptive advantage of intelligence, skull sizes had to increase to suit. More recent fossils should in general have larger skulls than earlier ones. That’s not always the case, but Dawkins has a reasonable explanation.

At any given time, variations in the expression of a given trait between members of the same species can be fairly significant. The largest human brains are about 40% larger by volume than the smallest ones, for instance. Given how spotty the fossil record is, we shouldn’t expect to discover a particular linear progression. This explanation makes sense in and of itself, but it left me uncertain about how to square the highly sensitive form of natural selection described above with the normal statistical variation for a trait within a species. Is there a contradiction here? I don’t know enough biology to know. It seems that either a tiny difference matters profoundly, or it doesn’t, right? I can imagine that the answer involves the phrase “it’s complicated,” and that both principles apply at different times, based on conditions and context. But Dawkins doesn’t address this. Again, I found myself wanting to understand how biologists may have reconciled these seemingly different conditions.

I’m running out of space here, but two more items were notable by omission. First, consciousness is not addressed at all. This is in keeping with the paradigm of hierarchical reductionism in which Dawkins operates, which he describes in one of the opening chapters. Presumably consciousness is no different qualitatively—in terms of explaining its origin—than mating behaviors or eyeballs. As such, there’s no real need to discuss it. For me, though, it’s an intriguing omission. I’m not sure that the equation of consciousness with rabbit ears rises to the level of common sense just yet.

It’s axiomatic, however, for Dawkins. He postulates (without saying this explicitly) a universe in which consciousness is the product of material evolution, and once he does this, the use of evolutionary theory to prove such a vantage becomes a circular argument. No more or less circular than a theist positing a God and finding evidence for this assertion, but circular nonetheless, so I can see why he leaves it alone. What he does feel obligated to emphasize is that he prefers his own form of circular argument to the ones made by “redneck creationists”—a preference the astute reader has comprehended long before he allows himself the satisfaction of name-calling.

Second, there is very little discussion of how the genome actually relates to the formation of the body itself. There is a really interesting passage on embryological development, but it is very high level. What Dawkins doesn’t address head-on is the need for particular types of relationships between genes and features. His examples throughout the book hinge upon the implication that infinitesimal differences in organisms not only afford them a reproductive advantage, but are inheritable, which means there must be clear genetic distinctions between an organism with a winglet that produces a few square millimeters of skin between two bones and one with a winglet a few square millimeters larger, and one with a winglet a few square millimeters larger than that, and so on.

One can easily imagine a genetic algorithm to produce this—there might be a gene that stores a value for how much skin to produce in a particular location, that could be adjusted like the volume dial on a radio—but that’s hardly the point. Dawkins himself argues that the genetic code is more like a recipe than a blueprint for each and every bit of tissue, so how does this work? Without a hereditary mechanism that is as granular as the countless tiny steps taken by evolution itself, the explanation given by Dawkins would break down. Aside from being a necessary element to deliver a cogent thesis, the question is also a fascinating one, but it is left untouched. We are left to assume that it’s perfectly obvious the genetic algorithms within an organism’s DNA contain the specificity and granularity required to accommodate, uniquely, each digitized step in evolutionary unfolding.

Given the state of genetics at the time the book was written, maybe Dawkins wished he could have said more on the subject, too. I would have much rather he mused on this topic than on the theory of how life might have begun as self-replicating crystals in seasonal streams, or the differences between various forms of taxonomy, or on disputes between various fields of evolutionary research. He included these topics principally to disarm the theists, I believe, not because they’re vital to an explanation of adaptive complexity.

This leads to the central failing of the book as a whole for me: it left intriguing scientific questions central to his argument untouched, and focused on philosophical pursuits instead. The result is a book that suffers for being of two minds. We lose the incandescent thread of wonder at life’s uncanny success, and find ourselves instead as audience to a squabble. For me there’s no squabble per se, so this was a distraction. But the questions raised were enjoyable to ponder, and I look forward to finding other works and authors in the future who may have addressed such questions.

Nevermind the Watches

comments 13
Book Reviews / Reflections / Science

This holiday season I received a gift subscription to Audible, and because I spend most of my reading time with works of fiction, I thought I’d use the daily commute for non-fiction. The first book I chose was Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. For reasons I cannot explain, I found myself curious recently about the theory of evolution, how it has evolved with the emergence of genetics, and what some of the open questions and modern findings are.

I should note that as I sit to write this post I’m about half way through the book, and very much enjoying it—the science in particular. Dawkins has a great knack for using readily accessible analogs of complex technical issues to introduce them, and then anticipating all the reasons why his readers might find those examples to be limited, and addressing those concerns as he moves deeper into a given subject. I marveled alongside of Dawkins at the prowess of bat echolocation, at the myriad creative possibilities a simple computer program with just nine “genes” could “discover”, and at the molecular micro-machines within our cells that spin and whirl and copy and catalyze in every instant of our existence. I’ve also enjoyed his reference to seminal experiments in modern biology that demonstrate the veracity of various points that he makes.

Dawkins’ proselytizing, however, is far less intriguing.

In periodic asides, Dawkins feels obliged to note that everything he’s just explained demolishes theism in general, and intelligent design arguments in particular. I understand the importance he places on this topic, given his personal position on the subject, but I find his need to interject on such matters a distraction from the very enjoyable and well-written insights into the science of evolution. One reason for this reaction is that his approach to the subject is quite shallow as compared to his thinking on the subject of evolution.

He writes as if the question of what the universe is, and how it came to be, may be reduced to a single multiple-choice question with but two answers. One must be right. The other wrong. And because of the black and white nature of the subject, it’s perfectly okay if he speaks pejoratively about and/or trivializes those he disagrees with. Readers like myself, who don’t have any issue with evolutionary theory, but still don’t think the case is closed with regards to what the universe actually is, how it came into being, or how it functions at the deepest level, find ourselves annoyed by Dawkins treatment of this subject. I did, at any rate. The only option offered aside from the position for which he advocates is to be a simpleton, and I think it’s unfortunate that Dawkins chose to adopt this artificial taxonomy of human thought.

I want to reply to this a bit, and begin by noting that the danger in doing so is the same danger Dawkins faces by electing to engage with the subject as he has. It’s the same danger we face in any argument on a complex subject that we reduce to a stark polarity. We’re obligated by the very context of the discussion to deploy facts as foot soldiers in an argument, and we’ve lost the opportunity to simply appreciate them with the gentle touch of an open mind. We find ourselves quickly choosing sides, and this has consequences to the conversation. Ultimately, it prevents creative dialogue from occurring, and all that can be sustained are bilateral rhetorical skirmishes. These are pointless. The marketplace of ideas where I prefer to do my shopping is not a bilateral monopoly, but something closer to perfect competition. Perhaps this is the market in which Dawkins actually operates—I hope so—and he simply aims to shrink it as much as possible to suit his literary purposes.

I very much enjoy the way Richard’s mind works when he sticks to the asking and answering of interesting scientific questions, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that his past experiences have made it important for him to address a particular subset of the overall marketplace of ideas. In other words, people like me probably don’t trouble him all that much, while people of a much more fundamental Biblical bent (as one example) probably do. I can understand that, and appreciate his passion, even if I don’t agree from my vantage with his seemingly perpetual need to challenge this particular subset of society to a duel.

One reason I disagree with his need to do this is that it marginalizes anyone who doesn’t align strongly with one of the two positions he sustains in his commentary. It shrinks the conversation, and to borrow from ideas I think he would potentially endorse, a society faced with an evolutionary crisis as we are today that only explores two possible memetic solutions to its difficulty would be departing from the strategies that served biological evolution so well in the past. My understanding is that evolution casts a wide net in the possible space of solutions so as to explore as many alternatives as possible.

The retort might be that because a person like me is in the minority, and not winning the memetic competition for air waves, pages printed per year, clicks on the internet, or some other such datum that corresponds to reproductive fitness, that evolution is working perfectly fine. The ideas that people like me carry are simply “losing” in the processes of cumulative selection at work in our world. So all is well.

This just shows how complicated these issues are. We can deploy them on any side of the argument we wish, in logically consistent ways. Yet neither of the two sides currently contesting this issue may be “ultimately” right. Because our planet is in the midst of an evolutionary crisis—a point in which collective transformation is urgently required—winning the battle of ideas, but losing the war of planetary stability for all species would be fruitless. To be “ultimately” right in this case is to land upon solutions to the challenges we face that are best for the planetary environment as a whole, and which allow for prosperous and peaceful human cohabitation with one another and all of life. It’s not clear to me that either of the bilateral positions to which Dawkins elects to give credence are going to be ultimately right.

Dawkins obviously feels strongly that regardless of what people with quieter voices and lesser public influence such as myself may think, those who believe in an intelligently-designed universe are “ultimately” wrong—meaning, he must believe in his heart of hearts there is no way for us to navigate the present planetary crisis while certain ideas remain viable. This is not something I’m prepared to agree with, because I think the very challenge we face is that of transcending the idea which says “my” survival, at the expense of “yours”, is acceptable. In other words, it is polarity itself that we must find our way beyond. The problem is not necessarily the other side of the coin, but the coin itself as we have minted it.

If evolution has taught us anything, I think it is that life solves problems by transforming and expanding on what came before it. Likewise, I believe transformation is required, but not transformation of one particular element of the meme pool at the expense of another. I believe we must evolve together, somehow, and what we must evolve beyond is the inherently destructive perception of polarity. In this sense, Dawkins’ work underscores the true challenge before us, though it does precious little to resolve it.

Restitution (A Short Story)

comments 20
Creative

I’m pleased to share that my short story Restitution will appear in the pending Fall/Winter issue of the Tahoma Literary Review. I believe printed and digital copies will both be available for purchase next week, and meanwhile an audible version of the issue has been uploaded on the TLR Soundcloud page that is freely available.

This was my first foray into making a voice recording of my writing, and I must confess a challenge. I owe a debt of gratitude to my old friend Hariod, who told me with all the British eloquence he could muster that my first version simply wouldn’t do. Suffice to say he encouraged me to keep at it, and this was invaluable. (He also read early drafts of this piece and several of his proposed edits are in the final version.)

I’m not really set up for this sort of thing, so finding a quiet spot in the house in which to work was the first challenge. One night the pitter-patter of a soft rain on the windows put me out of commission. Another evening I shut-off the breaker to the heating system. The town fire alarm went off in the middle of one section, and I realized we have more dogs in the neighborhood than I thought. Eventually I realized the room I had selected for this work possessed the harmonic subtleties of a trash can. By then I could hardly stand to look at the piece anymore.

That was the easy part, though.

Actually keeping sufficient concentration to add inflection and range to the work was all but impossible for me to do for long stretches. And for me, a long stretch was anything over about 3-4 minutes. I had no idea what inflections to even add until I’d been reduced to mumbles at least four or five times per passage. Then something would start to make sense. It was a bit like writing in that regard–only instead of words, it was pitch and inflection that I fumbled in the dark to grasp. I realized the voice in my head, though meaningful to me, is not profoundly theatrical. The process was like learning to dribble a basketball—the timing of my voice and the syllables slapped against one another, and often missed entirely. My hat’s off to professional narrators and seasoned readers.

Each of the contributors was asked to give a little background on the origins of their work, and I thought I’d share that with you here:

This piece began as a reflection on the idea that our woundedness—the unhealed places within us that drive us apart—may ultimately be redeemed. In particular, I was interested in the idea that the process of redemption transcends the individual. The process of making whole not only elides our conscious direction, it touches each of us simultaneously. We are all made whole at once, in essence. This piece was part of a series that I wrote to explore the movement of grace in our lives—to examine those moments when we lose ourselves, only to find ourselves.

Working with TLR was a great experience for me. The team there was professional, courteous and insightful, and I hope that, if you can, you’ll consider supporting their work.

Hope you enjoy!

The Heart Opens Into the Tongue

comments 16
Poetry

The way
a cloud breaks,
after wicking water from the sky
for several days of a moon’s turn inward,
and a droplet of water taps a leaf
on its way to the ground, and says,
I have heard you,
is the way that we are blessed:
with premonitions
of what has already been given.

My heart is Bell’s Inequality.
On one side there is meaning
and on the other side there is only its absence.
But the pulse in the middle confirms:
this land is uneven,
the magpie speaks,
there are no hidden variables to my existence.
I have always been broken open.
I have always known this sky could weep.

In Chaco Canyon they smoke for the rain.
The elders. Their faces drawn by the sun.
Their innards hollowed.
Their memories not their own.

If the pipes are not smoked it is only the weather.

But if hearts touch the sky,
and say, without you, I would not be,
then what rains down is a reply,
a landscape of voices in an organ of starlight.

The plants have their instructions in any case.
The weather they can endure. For a while.
But they flower when the circle is closed.
When the Truth is our only ambition.
And ambition is empty.

Reality is only a ruse when
we turn our back on it
and count to ten.
The Truth, then, like shoe leather,
tires our teeth. We cannot swallow.
We are caught with full mouths.
Once it was a game,
and now it is tragic.

If one ounce of water is random, then they all are.
And if one is the voice of my heart,
and one leaf is wakened by this pattering high five,
then they all are.
There is nothing to be desecrated but us,
because it is all just one thing or the other.
And the other is thingless.

There can’t be some things we know and some that we don’t.
There can’t be some things sacred and some that aren’t.
There can’t be one heart awake, and others still dreaming.
But we can always pretend.

We can call it the weather.

A mind apart from the heart is an experiment,
a poorly worded question,
and look what it has gotten us.
Let’s have all the papers by Friday, shall we?
Before the lights go out and the sky shakes
and the reeds bend low to the ground
and the snakes shelter under the stones
and the bluebirds cloister close to the trunk.

There is an antidote, of course,
an antidote to us,
but it can only be sung.
Try to sing, and you discover your pieces.
My mind knows only words.
My heart only music.
My teeth are tired,
and my tongue is caught in the middle.
The most delicate muscle in my body,
they say it is where the heart opens,
and I am holding it out to the sky
like a leaf.

Like all of us, I am waiting,
for what we know is to come.

Where We Are

comments 22
Poetry

The weeds in my heart have gone to tassel.
They are purple and rose edged
in the soft light from Beyond.

The sun here is setting, rising, calling, giving, knowing, holding, flying, burning.
And I am listening, watching, walking, dreaming, dying, wishing, burning.
Shadows of the unkempt reeds are dancing together on the ground.
They are playing in the mud without getting wet.

A world without shadows, I whisper, is a world without magic.

I’ve been away,
waiting for the train,
adjusting my shirt sleeves,
leaning into the wind,
reading a magazine,
trying to get the skin of a green pepper
off the side of my molar with one pinky,
picking an argument with this one article’s author.
He’s of the opinion we need another opinion.
He is paid to have an opinion.
And I wonder:
Does he always have one?
Or does he wander, like me,
back to this place we’ve always been,
where opinion is like a flat washer
you find in your pocket
when you’re following some moonlit trail
through the wilderness.
It’s not particularly harmful, this disc of metal.
If you look through the middle of it
the bear staring down at you
from the other side of the valley
may come into focus.
Or maybe you’ll trip over a root.

This morning I happened to notice:
One, time is in charge of the décor in my heart.
And two, the weeds in this place have all gone to tassel.

People are disembarking from their trains
and I decide not to get on the train
so there’s a void that remains
in the space where everyone was. Now
all those leaving know where they are going
but me, and they are getting there, alright—
you can just tell,
and I think, for some reason,
not out loud, just for me and you,
that I am already there.
I am already there…
And you are here with me.

This is where we are.
Where is there to go?

They’re not really weeds, anyway.
Though they have gone to tassel.
They’re markers. Raised hands.
Beings with roots that burrow deep in the mud.
When I began to harvest them
they organized a conference in my mind
about raft-building and the birds came
and ate all the secrets that fell on the ground
from the crumbling tassels
and flew away
and now I am after them,
floating on the river of my heart,
and I’m picking an argument with the author
of this one article because I wonder how—
how could you possibly have an opinion
when you are a river lengthening forever
across the land from one end to the next
wondering where those birds went?

Onyx feathers. Blue feathers. Red feathers.
A splash of light and all is revealed.
My longing coalesces.

They are out there, just over the bank,
singing the songs that live inside them.
They are visible if I look through the tasseled reed heads,
through the empty place at the center of my flat washer.

They are defecating those secrets right now
from the tips of branches and hollow reeds,
Sowing my next breath’s crop of yearning.

Stella’s Radio

comments 31
Fiction

My short story “Stella’s Radio” was published this week by Delay Fiction. It’s a story about love and connection, about the awkwardness that sometimes attends the becoming of who we truly are, and about the way life’s circumstances can propel us into the open, out from the cover of normalcy and safety and little dreams.

I didn’t know these things when I sat down to write it. A story begins with some little nudge of inspiration, a moment that conveys an energetic charge. I feel it in my body. There is a visceral need to start setting some words out onto the screen, to start the process of constructing all the things around this point of entry. It might be as simple as the image of an elderly man shaking hands with a another person. He has a certain look in his eye—a tone that rings throughout his being. A joy settles into my chest. A recognition. Then it’s off to the races. Who is this person? What is he doing? Where does his clarion presence come from? I could spend days envisioning scenes and moments and people, and nothing would grab hold of me, and then out of the blue something will stick. I’ll be dragging the trash cans out to the curb, and it will hit me. The feeling. It’s like being a child and discovering some new trail in the woods. Where does it lead?

Sometimes people ask what a story is about and I find myself taking a heavy breath, as if I’ve just been asked to explain how the world began. I find the essence of a story is just too much to say before attentions wither. And even if I manage to say something simple and relevant, like I tried to do in the opening paragraph here, that’s still not what the story is. How to explain this thing that has no beginning and no end and is part of every story and is the only reason we write in the first place?

We read for many reasons, but we write for only one. A story is a truth you can’t say any other way. It’s a peek at the heart of things, at the point where you end and everything else begins—the point where nothing is missing. To write is to pioneer one of these routes to the world’s center, to enter the whole of things more deeply than usual. You put on some instant, some moment or place or being, like a costume—it’s interesting at first, you could just take it off, right?—but then you discover you can’t go back. You can’t unlearn what you learned when you sat down to write. You can’t forget what you called upon to set those words upon the page.

A story is a vantage. It’s a simple movement usually, from the sandy ground on which we usually walk to the outcropping twenty or thirty feet overhead. We scramble around a bit, find our way up there, and the distance we travel on paper is very short perhaps, but once we arrive, and turn to look back, we discover nothing is quite what we thought it was. Things are renewed, made fuller–ourselves included, as both writers and as readers. How do you say what a story is about, when really it’s this movement, the moment of looking back, and what each of us finds there? I cannot say what you will find. What it’s about depends on you…

Writing is a lovely, challenging, sometimes debilitating process, but ultimately it enriches and sustains me. And hopefully, if you read this story, you will get a glimpse of what I’m talking about!

On Conflict and Freedom

comments 17
Course Ideas / Reflections

I have come to an important realization I think. And it’s not to say that I didn’t sort of know this already, but there’s a difference in knowing something and really knowing it.

We’ve all seen these dichotomies: the zone defense or man-to-man, materialism or spiritualism, unrestrained capitalism or comprehensive socialism, cardio or strength training, STEM or liberal arts, the Right or the Left… And we all have at least one or two thoughts on these things. If you’re like me, though, you’re not reducible to a multiple choice form, particularly one with only two answers. The truth is that we’re all unique, and even when we do align on some big picture issue, the motivations behind our choices are often distinct. Even when we agree, it’s often for different reasons.

But we live in the age of convincing. We always have, of course. There is nothing unique about the fact that in the present historical moment we are berating one another right, left and center over the ways that we think, feel, and encounter the world and one another. The failure on our part is not in thinking there’s a right answer, but in thinking there’s only one right answer. And this is the knowledge to which I’m returning.

Wherever we’re each at in our exploration of who we are, is the right answer for each of us. It’s a hard pill to swallow, because some people are in a place of self-exploration that requires the people around them to suffer. Something ought to be done about that, we think. But what’s really tricky here is that before we get all the way down the chains of causation that lead to the accruing and exercising of power over others in a manifest way, we pass this little place called the need to be right, and what we seldom realize is that the need to be right comes at the expense of others, too. You’re on my side, or you’re one of them. All our difficulties stem from this, from our inability to wrap the cloak of inclusion around everyone.

The crux of the matter for me is whether we’re living in a world that is simply happening to us, or one that responds to the movement of who we are being, and who we are becoming. This might be restated as suggesting that we either live in a zero-sum game, or we live in an open-ended movement of creation. My opinion is that we live in the latter, but when I forget this, and act as if I live in the former, then antagonisms necessarily develop.

In the zero-sum version of reality it is necessary to assert one’s particular views with the degree of force that is acceptable to one’s conscience, because this is the means by which the desired outcomes are obtained. We’ve set some boundaries on the sorts of force that civilized humans are able to bring to bear upon one another, but within those boundaries we are quite tenacious. And having boundaries doesn’t change the fundamental condition under which we labor. That condition is one of limited views in conflict.

Part of my discovery is that there simply is no wholeness in conflict. When I slip into the zero-sum version of reality, I am myself conflicted, sliced in two, and ineffectual. In the interactive version of reality—the version in which we are all related, in which the countless dialogues between the individual and the Whole somehow yield the multi-dimensional fabric of daily life, a curated experience of being supplied to each one of us—there is a unique sort of freedom on offer. It is the freedom of comprehending that reality is working.

The tremendous difficulty in accepting this freedom is that it implies a tacit complicity with all the evils of the world. There’s this idea that if certain things that obtain in our world were resolved, then things would be pretty good. It hinges upon the notion that if we could somehow convince those people out there who are doing screwed-up, awful things, or even just innocently deluded things—which if you think about it, amounts to the same thing—then we could get things on track. And in a zero-sum reality, this is perfectly correct.

But when one offers the benefit of the doubt to reality itself, and allows for the fact that reality is working, then one begins to understand that our efforts to change other people is identical to having our cake and eating it, too.  In other words, a world in which we remain precisely who we think we are on every level, but without the collective difficulties we face, may not be a possible world. The difficulties may simply be symptomatic of our incomplete understanding of who we are. They are simply the feedback—as immutable as the effects of gravity on a bouncing ball—the effect of the cause, which is our ignorance.

The acknowledgment that reality is working simply takes the edge off. It doesn’t mean to suggest that the difficulties we see are not worth tackling, but it frees us to express who we are without getting everyone else on board first. And I think it is this freedom—the possibility of offering the gift of who we are on behalf of everyone, and expressing the clarity of our hearts without becoming mired in the need to correct or push down another, that will ultimately transform this experience for everyone. Because this type of movement is undivided, and whole, and true.

Consciousness, Panpsychism & A Course in Miracles

comments 25
Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

This week I listened to Sam Harris interview his wife Annaka on his podcast Making Sense. She has recently written a book entitled Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, which I should note I haven’t read. An interesting moment occurred when she said it was not altogether obvious why consciousness should exist from an evolutionary perspective, because there is very little, if anything, that we cannot imagine occurring just as well without a conscious witness to the proceedings. We can visualize a computerized intelligence, for instance, with the right programming, that could behave much like a human being without actually being aware of what it was doing, or how it felt to be doing those things.

This led Annaka to ponder the possibility that consciousness is not something that is the product of matter and energy, but is a fundamental part of nature, or fundamental to physical reality let’s say. It exists in the same way that matter and energy do, as a given. I’m a little unclear on exactly what to say about what she really means, because I haven’t read her book, and because its admittedly a challenging topic to review in detail. She and Sam were very careful at this point to note that this is a scientific conception of consciousness, wholly unrelated to New Age ideas of the topic. It always amuses me when people insist on these distinctions, because it’s sort of like saying we have a scientific theory of why things fall down to the ground, and just so you know, it’s completely unrelated to the layman’s delusional awareness that things fall down due to a mysterious force.

These false categories do nothing but sustain false lines of demarcation. We draw them because it makes us feel good to be on the right side of them, but they are of no real value to the process of inquiry.

Enough on that. What brought me to the page this evening was an interesting idea that struck me as Sam and Annaka were exploring this topic of panpsychism, which is the word for a range of ideas related to the idea that consciousness exists—in some form—at all levels of physical phenomena. I realized there is an insistence when approaching the topic scientifically to note that atoms have such a miniscule, dim, and protean form of consciousness that it would barely be considered consciousness at all. In other words, humans are at the apex of known forms of consciousness, and atoms have the awareness of comatose bricks in a wall. The idea that struck me is that we quite possibly have this backwards.

I’m going to get New Age now and refer to A Course in Miracles, which for me is as valid a source of information as any scientific experiment. It also is irrelevant, as core ideas in the Course can be found in essentially all spiritual teachings that aim at offering its practitioners the experience of non-duality. The Course is just one form of what I believe is a universal truth, and this particular form happened to appeal to me. At any rate, there is an idea presented early in the Course, and which only appears on a few occasions, but which made a big impact on me when I first encountered it. It goes like this, “…the mind is naturally abstract.” I would like to relate this to the notion that human consciousness is quite possibly a much more limited form of consciousness than that which obtains throughout the universe. It’s just a fun idea to ponder, so bear with me please.

Now, when the Course speaks about the mind, it is speaking about the One Mind, or the whole Mind, or the instantaneous totality of being of which all that exists partakes. It’s hard to describe in words. You can’t describe it in words. But you can give some inklings, just as you can give kindling some heat, and hope that at some point awareness catches fire… The basic point in the Course is that specificity, and the situational awareness so conducive to winning professional sports titles, is really secondary. It is illusory, and fundamentally related to what Annaka and Sam would both describe as delusional notions: one being the sense of a personal self, and the second being free will. These don’t exist as we think they do, according to Sam, and I agree. I’ll actually agree and disagree simultaneously on the notion of a personal self, because it’s paradoxical to a certain extent. But for the purpose of this discussion let’s equate a personal self with an egoic awareness—with the idea that there is an “I” that exists separately from all other “I’s.”

The Course says, “Everything the ego perceives is a separate whole, without the relationships that imply being. The ego is thus against communication, except insofar as it is utilized to establish separateness rather than to abolish it. The communication system of the ego is based on its own thought system, as is everything else it dictates. Its communication is controlled by its need to protect itself, and it will disrupt communication when it experiences threat. This disruption is a reaction to a specific person or persons. The specificity of the ego’s thinking, then, results in spurious generalization which is really not abstract at all. It merely responds in certain specific ways to everything it perceives as related.

“In contrast, spirit reacts in the same way to everything it knows is true, and does not respond at all to anything else. Nor does it make any attempt to establish what is true. It knows that what is true is everything that God created. It is in complete and direct communication with every aspect of creation, because it is in complete and direct communication with its Creator. This communication is the Will of God. Creation and communication are synonymous. God created every mind by communicating His Mind to it, thus establishing it forever as a channel for the reception of His Mind and Will. Since only beings of a like order can truly communicate, His creations naturally communicate with Him and like Him. This communication is perfectly abstract, since its quality is universal in application and not subject to any judgment, any exception or any alteration.” (emphasis added, quotes taken from the Text, Chapter 4, Section VII, Paragraphs 2-3)

What does it mean for the mind’s natural state to be a perfect abstraction? It sounds kind of ridiculous. But what it means is that the mind, in its natural state, might say, “I love,” and stop there, instead of saying “I love ice cream.” There need be no object—no specificity—to the mind’s natural extension of Love, since it extends love simultaneously to all that exists with it, and as it, and thus has no concept whatsoever of inventions or schemes (such as the ego’s concept of a separateness between beings) that do not ultimately obtain.

What I’m proposing when I suggest that the scientific notions of panpsychism as presently framed are fundamentally backwards, or upside-down, is that the simplest forms of matter and energy are the least constrained. We like to think consciousness is all about having experiences, and for us that means having experiences as a human being. For the vast majority of us, that means having experiences as a particular human being. The forms of conscious awareness most readily available to us are those bound by this beautiful complexity we call a body. But a particle—whose behavior in quantum mechanics can be explained perfectly by presuming that it explores every possible state available in the entire universe simultaneously—is not bound at all by this complexity. It could, conceivably, possess a far more abstract form of awareness, which for us is indeed unfathomable. We could say it is so dim as to be nothing at all… or we could flip the coin and say it is so bright as to be everything at once. It really is not possible for us to distinguish between these two possibilities.

The long and short is that I find it very interesting to consider that complexity is, paradoxically, proportional to limitations when it comes to consciousness. That’s not to say there are not beautiful and holy spaces to explore through this lens. There are. But I suspect a valid theory of panpsychism will need to reframe the very idea of materialism, by considering that physical systems do indeed inform consciousness—not by building it up, but by focusing it down into very specific pathways, in order to yield very specific forms of experience. Materialism would then predict that the formation of complex systems is the product of collapsing the natural, unbounded and unified form of consciousness that ultimately exists within and as everything, into localized, ephemeral, illusory, but instructive vehicles for the creation of novel experiences.

The body in this view is not an exemplar of heightened consciousness, but an exemplar of specificity, giving rise to a very limited form of consciousness.