The Need For Better Questions

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Course Ideas / Reflections

Lately I’ve been listening to a few more podcasts and reading a few more op ed pieces in the media than I ever have before, and one really interesting observation has become clear to me. We are (all of us) biased in ways I think would surprise us were they actually understood. While it may seem obvious, nevertheless this had the feel of real discovery to me. And I think there is a reason for our collective myopia: the world rewards perception.

The world validates perception.

I think it’s worthwhile to consider that the “world” does not exist as an objective reality like we suspect it might. And in the case where there is no objective reality, then the very concept of bias is meaningless. You simply have people describing their vantage points. Everyone has a particular view, and while all of them are more or less biased with respect to all the others, very few are actually mutually exclusive. The world as I see it is more like a web of partially overlapping perceptions than a fixed subject that reveals itself to careful scrutiny. Because of this, I think we mislead ourselves whenever we make sweeping claims.

But is the world simply what we make of it then? Can I simply declare how much money I have in my bank account? Who will love me? What my job title will be? How long I will live?

Of course not. But it simply doesn’t follow from the fact that we do not control the world, or our specific place in it at any given time, that it must be the fixed, objective and singular “thing” we wish/suppose it to be. What’s interesting to me is that if there is any veracity to this claim that the “world” as we think of it simply doesn’t exist, then our relationship to the world changes. Our responsibilities change. Our experience is no longer simply a report on the world’s condition, but the return on our perceptual investment. I want to explore what this could mean, but first I’d like to clarify what I’m suggesting.

For my purpose here it’s fine to declare that water flows downhill and electrons radiate light when they shift places within the atom. I don’t dispute these notions. What’s more interesting to me is how the world’s utterly reliable mechanics mislead us into thinking that our experiences are the result of particular and finite causes—of the world being a certain way. This idea compels us to identify the factors at work around us that have led to the conditions in which we find ourselves. As to what these are, or which are most relevant, we simply do not agree. If half a lifetime of observation is any clue, we’ll never agree.

If the world were as objective as we’ve hoped, meaning that the experiences it engendered were due to orderly causes whose underlying mechanisms were more or less amenable to our tinkering, then it would be meaningful to think we could modulate the world’s dials and change the quality of our existence. But if, instead, there are fundamental relationships between the modes of perception with which we seed the “world” and the sorts of evidence, or experiences, that it returns, then no amount of tinkering with the dials will lead to sustained transformations of experience. This, I believe, is the reality of our condition.

Why does this matter? Well, let us suppose that what we call “the world” exists only as an experiential engine that returns evidence to us of precisely what we have chosen to perceive. If this is so, then 99% of the strategies we find ourselves seeking to implement will fall short of the promised return. This would be important I think. Also, this discovery about the world would suggest we possess capabilities we’ve simply not understood.

Perhaps the most essential argument against what I’m proposing would be this: I can’t wake up tomorrow, flip a switch on my perception, and end poverty. In fact, I can hardly flip the switch on my own life, and if you’re talking about the power of positive thinking… then I can’t believe I’ve even read this far. So let me be clear: I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking.

I’m talking about hereditable, self-reinforcing conditions of perception universally active in the collective human population so fundamental we don’t know how to interrogate them. So fundamental they may even be hard-wired in our biology. One such perception might be this: we exist in a zero sum game. Another might be this: our existence is fragile. Or this: I can draw upon only on what I own. I’m talking about ideas so fundamental, and so ubiquitous, they appear to us as givens. We can’t imagine how they could be outcomes instead of facts. We’ve baked them into the world engine in spades.

If these notions I’ve suggested about perception were so, then what would be the rational response to the world as we “see” it? It would be simple, I think. Being the smartest or most astute would be useless, really. Being “right” about policy would be secondary. What would be most important would be the inner act of perceptually undercutting these hereditable traits of perceptual orientation that have produced the word as it appears to be, and of making other possibilities real to ourselves and others. I think we’d recognize with little to do that any contributions we can make to supplying evidence of the possibility for genuine transformation would be of lasting value. What other response would compute?

Instead of mud-slinging, shouting one another down, insisting on our version of the “truth”, or focusing on achieving the greatest degree of control over external conditions, we’d recognize the greatest resource we have is one another. We might even recognize that policies or actions we take that enable others to perceive the world anew are the ones that matter most, for these contributions would in essence contribute to the lasting cessation of needless suffering. If the gift we wished to give the world each day was the gift of evidencing the idea that the world does not need to be as it is, it would not be so hard.

I don’t have all the answers, not even a fraction of them, but I’m not sure it’s answers that we need. I think we need better questions.

The Round House, A Review

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Book Reviews

Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House is first and foremost a good story. If I was to recount the basic narrative in less than a page—as you would if someone asked you, “what was that one about?”—I think you’d find it interesting even then, and for me it would be hard to do so without wandering off into some enticing narrative thicket. That’s not something we can say about every book that toys with literary greatness.

Imagine someone asking you to tell the story of Mrs. Dalloway, and how difficult it would be to answer. They’re quite different entities, Mrs. Dalloway and The Round House, to be sure, and that’s not to say one is objectively better or worse than another. Such comparisons are ultimately facile. But it is to say that Louise Erdrich tells a beautiful and compelling story—in this case, a story that pushes and pulls on you from start to finish.

The subjects she chooses are visceral and necessary: violence against women, the cuckolding of justice on an Ojibwe reservation, the power of true friendship, and the symmetry of desperation and greed in our world. The urgency Erdrich feels for her themes is obvious, and it gives the work both tenderness and grit. She writes with the need to tell it just so, to be truthful to what it is and who it involves, and to avoid any proximal reporting. The result is a work that orbits the potency of its core on every page, a work unashamed of being what it has to be.

The characters, too, are unflinching in their construction. Flawed and hungry, unique and beautiful, they are accessible to us even as they kindle awareness of meanings that transcend the particular. What I loved about the characters is that they are not layered creations out of literary necessity; they are layered precisely as the world is layered, as we are layered. In this, The Round House is as much a vision as it is a story. It is a book that pierces the illusion of individuals disconnected from the powers they represent, to reveal that we are each indeed containers of history, agents of dreaming and need, and portents of time and place.

The externalized systems in our world attempt to displace the archetypal knowing of ourselves we once possessed, but those systems destroy what they seek to preserve. They rob us, too, of the power of who we are. Erdrich senses this I think, and lets it be what it is on the page. Thus the judge who cannot find justice, the priest who cannot find God, and the cop who cannot find clues. The powerful in this story are the ones who go against the grain, who walk the way that is their own to walk even if they flounder along the path. They are the ones who bring gifts back to the people.

The tragedy revealed by The Round House is the gifts that have been stolen, the physical and spiritual sustenance we all require that has been squandered, usurped, defiled or forgotten. It is when we find ourselves bereft that we, in turn, profane what matters most. In a fable contained within the greater novel, this force takes the form of hunger, which leaves a person vulnerable to possession by a wiindigoo. Such a person becomes an animal that sees other people as food, and if everyone in the community is in agreement, then the person must be killed. But great care must be taken in the killing of this person. Such a step should only be taken once all other remedies have been attempted.

The Round House is the story of one boy’s confrontation with a wiindigoo in the broad daylight of our broken world, and of the steps that must be taken to cast it aside. Erdrich shows that those steps, even taken with care and with courage, exact a toll. In a sense, there can be no justice—no genuine redemption—until the altar at the center of our being, and of our communities, is restored. The altar in this story is the Round House, the ceremonial ground where the physical world is joined with the spiritual, a place that echoes with the wisdom of the buffalo, and also the scene of the crime that sets this novel into motion. Erdrich shows us that the consequences of hunger are not individual, but shared. Until the hunger in us is fed, and the original bounty of this world recovered, we all remain vulnerable to the wiindigoo.

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

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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,

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,
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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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

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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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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…