Saturday, April 6, 2019

Minding the Gaps

Career opportunities for evolutionary biologists are pretty good these days, but there must be a nagging feeling that comes on to them every so often – assuming they are intellectually honest. I am not sure what in natural selection gave us a brain (and mind) far more sophisticated and superfluous than what was needed for survival, but it really screwed up. I mean, just think of the overhead required that catapulted us to have Shakespeare plays written, compose Bach music, or send us off to the moon. We didn’t need it. We also don’t need to be chasing after Truth, or having mystical experiences for that matter. It just gets us into all sorts of trouble, when we should be hunting boar (and not writing code) to get the girl!

It also seems there are these transitional spaces where natural selection doesn’t offer a great explanation. The Cambrian explosion is still a mystery where all these species appear fully developed with no alteration since that period. The move from primates to Homo Sapiens seems like quite a leap too, when although we were quite strong for a significant period of time, at some point the evolutionary process decided to make us weaker and give us the capacity for language and the awareness to know when we're acting like arseholes.

The evolutionary biologists eventually find that organisms can be reduced in complexity only so far. At some point, they bump up against an irreducible complexity. Then they need to explain how it is that complex interacting and interdependent parts of organisms can evolve together without a God to the somewhat brilliant and mostly stupid people we are today. Still, our potential to be real persons is quite excessive from that materialistic perspective. 

So will science fill in the gaps with evidence, or will I fall prey to the God in the Gaps proposition? Neither. I think scientists fall prey to these gaps with just as much religious vigor in their Darwin in the Gaps argument. They even cleverly point to Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium theory as a suitable explanation; however, never explaining the mechanism that made that even happen. And while I’m not going to say God lent a hand with these leaps, I’m also not willing to concede that there may be cosmic nudges happening here and there. Are these miracles? Or is it that existence, life, and mind are all miracles in themselves?

I will at least open myself to Intelligent Design as being one plausible explanation. In the interview below, Stephen C. Meyer convincingly raises some concerns with the neo-Darwinist position; such as, how are we to account for all the discontinuities in evolution; how so-called undirected processes produced the complexity and information needed for life to emerge; and how did we get so lucky with the anthropic fine-tuning required for organic material to appear from inorganic material?

Intelligent Design posits that personal agency (theist or non-theist) is fundamental to the cosmos. It's probably the only input to an open system that can account for the information needed for the origin of existence. But then again, the neo-Darwinist will lock him or herself into an impoverished closed system of scientism, where although the human mind can seemingly grasp things that are true, there can be no intelligibility at the root of it that is source of Truth. Garbage in, garbage out. 

Consider a look at Meyer's line of reasoning here:

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

There Are No Plateaus

I believe there is much to be said as to how entropy and sin share a relationship. If physical entropy is the degradation of matter and energy from order to disorder, sin is a form of spiritual entropy where our soul can easily move from a state of sacred relationship to profane alienation. This is not to be dismissed by any of us.

I've been reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianoff and Haidt, and what's unsettling about today's “woke” movement is how divorced it is from nuance. Its become an all or nothing dichotomous orientation. Every group is seen as an object of privilege or oppression, and every uncomfortable emotion is used a basis for argument. There is no ontological center for one's mode of existence. So we are left with a call-out culture of scapegoating those who offend us, when the real sacrifice needs to come from within.  

When Solzhenitsyn stated “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” he was conveying there are no purely good or evil people. After his arrest and being sent to a gulag for being a Stalin dissident, he realized he could just as easily been an executioner for the state rather than the condemned man who could have been executed. He was eventually released and exiled, and made the point in his writings and life to not fall prey to being self-righteous.

But the self-sacrifice (or repentance) of our self-image in place of our judgement of others is not always easy, and it requires constant vigilance. 

The Dominican theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange said, “In the way of God, he who makes no progress loses ground.” We are never arrived, but always arriving; otherwise we are distancing ourselves. There are no plateaus. 

I often find even in my workouts I am never truly maintaining. My body is always going through changes where some weeks I make gains, and other periods I need to adjust to setbacks. Routines that worked well a few years ago, don't work so well today. I'm constantly responding to injuries, recovery time, and my energy level. 

But this doesn't necessarily mean I'm losing ground, as there are ways to change my relationship to these circumstances. I can change my relationship to my expectations. It doesn't mean I have to achieve the physicality of my past. It can be more about slight functional improvements, slowing down the aging process, or the post-workout satisfaction I have. And if I'm injured, I may need to learn patience and acceptance. The key is ground does not have to be lost as long as my motivation (or faith) remains steadfast throughout these changes.

The same could be said in regards to developing soul strength. While entropy is a function of our physical universe (and our aging bodies), there is also an interior neg-entropy impulse that can guide our souls to a deeper ordering. Even if we feel progress is not being made, we are pulled forward as long as we keep the faith. We can eventually find that our relationship to life's obstacles can be transforming.

We are always moving, but which way? We can abide forward, or we don't. Stasis is not an option.

Monday, March 18, 2019

My Veritas is The Veritas

The pursuit of Truth is one of the core inquiries for philosophers, metaphysicians, theologians, physicists, biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and Joe Rogan on mushrooms. Then there are those who believe Truth is feeling, which in the end just morphs to Truth is power, which is not Truth at all but closer to the will of mobs and despots. Beyond that, there’s not much I can add that hasn’t already has been said in regards to Truth, except that it’s the Truth to say in my way.

I was at a philosophy meetup a few weeks back, and the fellow I was having a conversation with seemed to be on another plane of reality. He couldn’t get past the fact Truth or even the idea of seeking it was some sort of machination of the brain. I couldn’t get anywhere with him because our assumptions were so different. And even if I could make my premises explicit, he just saw that as another code-error of the brain. So basically he explained me and himself away, and in the end it didn’t matter that we were there. I could have just as well stayed home and watched Netflix.

I get it that some consider life to be a closed system. It’s a sad disposition to be in, but most do live in an ordinary consciousness with a worldview that is less than ordinary. And while we can find out or know all kinds of facts about anything or everything, we may never discover what anything or everything is. So while we can be ignorant about a lot of things, the real issue is the fundamental ignorance of the totality.

Bob offered up a great aphorism recently: “Things are only knowable in part because they are unknowable in full.” The mind can know things, but it can’t KNOW the THING. The only reason the mind can know things, is that the THING that it can't know is KNOWING itself. And since KNOWING is infinite, the THING (which is not a thing) is unknowable by a finite mind. 

Got that?! And while we can taste the THING, we will never swallow it whole! 

Even experientialists are wrong to believe they can nail it down. Yes, some of us have sat on zafus and taken our ayahuasca to get a glimpse of the THING, but there’s still something amiss with this approach. Frank Merrell-Wolff says, “The Pragmatists are right in asserting that formal knowledge is not enough to determine effective or final Truth, but they are wrong in asserting that such Truth, or the knowledge of it, must depend upon experience. On the other hand, the rational Idealists are right in maintaining the effective Truth must be absolute and, therefore cannot be derived from experience, which of necessity must be finite. But they are wrong in so far as they claim to be able to establish this Truth by formal demonstration alone. The effective establishment of this Truth requires ‘Knowledge through Identity,’ i.e. a direct Recognition on the level of Infinity, which is never attainable by any expansion of experience alone.”

And since we are all individuals with differences, “every expression is at best but a facet reflecting the Truth as near as may be.” 

As such, we can’t get absolute Truth in a relative world. We are mediators to Truth, but never the possessors of it.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Antidote for Seeking

The subject-object manifold that we fall under through ordinary consciousness is the source of our estrangement from Source. We don't even consider how insidious this contracted condition is, because we are so good at buffering our pain with constant distraction rather than being in a relationship with the Real.

“Conditional existence DOES hurt---and not just when it is especially hurting. It hurts ALL the time!” (Adi Da).

(Please note I am not endorsing Adi Da. I’m well aware of the controversies surrounding him, but I do believe a couple of his earlier books were pretty good at refining the esoteric.) 

In the preface of The Method of the Siddhas, the author says “Meditation and esoteric practices do not lead to love, happiness, freedom, and the Sacrifice that can be called God-Realization. Rather, exactly the reverse is true — only active sacrifice, God-Communion in the moment, the life of love, happiness, and freedom in every ordinary action, is the ground for real spiritual practice and Realization.”

And I believe that’s a central point: the method is our motivation to be with God at all times. Note: be with God, not just seek Him.

Carl McColman says, “For herein is a paradox: contemplation means we seek the God who has already found us, but our longing will, at least on this side of eternity, never be fully satisfied.”

Here again, the sages say there is nothing that a man can do to save himself, to become God Realized. If we approach Truth from the point of view of the search, it will always evade us.

In a Christ-like manner, we must sacrifice of our search, striving, and effort. We can only take the motivated posture to inhabit our intimacy with God.

We can set the conditions for this sacrifice, also known as self-emptying or kenosis, but it is not done by us. McColman adds, 
In other words, if you wake up one morning and say, ‘I think I will empty myself today,’ even if you spend the day performing very worthy and loving actions designed to foster your humility or lessen your dualistic mind or sense of self-importance, in truth you will still in some way miss the kenotic mark, because all of your actions will still carry the faint imprint of self-directed, self-important striving. I will humble myself—see where the emphasis is placed? ‘It's all about me’ is the best way to distract yourself from the kenotic call. … A much more useful approach would be to regard kenosis as an antidote to the lust for experience.
It reminds me of the punchline to the joke where the Rabbi observes the self-flagellation of a poor man, and then elbows a banker and whispers “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
Our progress or ascent toward God may be more like a decent or revealing of God to us. We just got to get out of the way.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Fabulously Absolute

I’ve always been a fan of the eclectic Joe Jackson, and had an opportunity to see him in concert recently for his Fool album/four-decade tour. The first single off the album, Fabulously Absolute, is a tad cynical lyrically with one of the best words ever used in a song: troglodyte (which is a person considered to be reclusive, reactionary, out of fashion, or brutish... hmm, I can relate on some days).

Moreover, the playful song title conjures up an interesting reflection. After all, does today’s culture see anything as fabulously absolute, or more like depressingly relative?

First and foremost, if you assume it's all relative, then you've made that into an absolute. No escape. 

So can we at least consider some of the universals that are relatively Absolute? There seems to be many features of culture, language, and behavior that are found in common to all people known: we all seem to believe murder and stealing is wrong; we all hold something as sacrosanct; we all have bias towards kinship, privilege in-group loyalty, and believe in fairness and duty; we all practice reciprocal exchanges of labor, goods, or services; and we all look for patterns and relations in things. Just to name a few.

There are also some fundamental constants to the physical universe: Planck's constant, the speed of light, and Newton's gravitational constant. There are biological universals and constants, such as gender disposition and physiology. 

In the modern civilized world, we see universals around the dignity of the human being, respect for personal property, limits of the state, and the rule of law. As individuals, we also tend to find our deepest and most enduring happiness through the universals of family, vocation, friendship/community, and faith. 

We also find the draw we all have towards a transcendent Absolute through our groping for goodness, truth, beauty, and love in a multitude of ways. Maybe we know implicitly that only through eternal forms, can changeable and impermanent things have significance. And therefore maybe things are not so depressingly relative after all. 

Why don’t we want to believe in absolutes? Because they impose demands on us; demands to say with conviction that some truths are better than others, and demands for us to live by them. It feels safer to search or play with truth, then claim any Truth. 

But who said God was safe? He's just fabulously Absolute.



*
Most consider Joe Jackson's best work to be his most popular albums, Look Sharp and Night and Day. I tend to prefer his more obscure work, and consider Night and Day II (a beautiful piece of work), Big World (wonderfully poignant and intense), and Blaze of Glory (epic) to be my favorites. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

What True Self is Self'ing?

We sometimes appear stuck between an existential catch phrase of “be yourself” and a Buddhist-like notion that “there is no-self.” There is a lot of confusion with both concepts.

The relative aspect of self is just a self-organizing narrative that allows us to function in the world. Also, often known as the egoic-self, where there can be healthier and less-healthier forms of this. 

The existentialists would take this one step further by claiming to break the grip of the past by aligning with the choices we make going forward. But this version of self is just replacing one story about oneself with maybe a better story. But our locus of identity is still mostly organized around concepts of our self-conscious doer, albeit with a sense of more autonomy than disposition.

Going a step further, the not-self teaching (anattā/anātman) in Buddhism would claim all concepts about the self are false and that this can be Realized by the practices of emptiness. But there are some misunderstandings here also, as the original teachings did not claim there was no self but where the self was-not. 

The Buddha never denied a self, but that there was no self to be found in the five aggregates: namely translated as corporeality, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and individual consciousness. Yet, ātman remains. The ātman was not impermanent, unlike the aggregates (skandhas) which comprised of a false self.

Still, ātman is seen as universal, which leaves little to room for the particularities around individuality. It would seem to me even Self-Realized persons still act as persons, with particular dispositions, inclinations, and personalities. These are the constraints and gifts that make us human, even as a liberated one. So Buddhism does not definitively speak of finding the true self, but only losing the false one.

By contrast, Christianity revolves around the notion of the Person which is derived from the doctrine of the Trinity. As a Person, we are substance-in-relation. 

The First relation is vertical in sharing in the Infinite. We are receptive of “one’s  own existence from a Source that remains ever transcendent.” 

Being in a state of grace is the Christian version of what the Buddhist calls the primordial state or essence of mind. It is not passive in the sense of being merely inert, but actively receptive to whatever comes from the Infinite.”

We are not just Consciousness, but we possess consciousness. Therefore, we possess an “inner unity that transcends the flux into which Buddhism would dissolve us—a flux of physical and psychical elements, of individual moments in time generated one after another by karma.”

The Second relation is horizontal in sharing with others in the world. This makes this inner unity paradoxical. Our true center is not just in ourselves, but also outside ourselves. We exist in relationship to others. Therefore, we can’t find our true self just by introspection. Again, we are substance-in-relation!

If we look to the image of the cross, we can symbolically find a paradoxical and Trinitarian true self at its center. This center contains the interaction of these inner and outer modes of being where God, soul, and world are always finely mingled, and in ways which are unique to the individual. This center is universal and particular, dynamic and essential, and is the only true self that can go forward Self’ing as God's mediator in the world.
“You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires. Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth.” (Ephesians 4:22–4)

(Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the excellent book The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity by Stratford Caldecott.)

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Making of the Silent Partner

Last year when I was taking a mini-course on St. Aquinas, I mentioned to the instructor that I had also been influenced by some process theologians, when he immediately noted I need to read God and Intelligence by Bishop Fulton Sheen. He said the Bishop takes them on tactfully, and comes to the defense of Aquinas’ cogent thoroughness on the matter. (I tackled similar ‘evolutionary spiritual’ themes before, here and here.)

I put the book on the back burner, until such a time I knew I would be able to dive in. In the meantime, I got to watch some videos of Bishop Sheen’s performances on his prime-time show in the 1950’s. Imagine, a Bishop pontificating on prime time television about Christianity, yet he certainly had the polish for the fledgling platform!

In regards to this excellent book, I came to see why the instructor pointed me here. Bishop Sheen brings out a fresh perspective of Aquinas from the point of view of the modern thinker. While the modern thinker is all about progress, “Progress is necessarily conservative. To perfect we must conserve the gains of the past.”

The question is what is conserved in progress? It would seem that for real progress to occur, growth would have to be organic. Yet, “growth of modern philosophy is not organic. It grows not from within like a living organism, but from without like a crystal. It grows on contradictions. Swinging always between the two extremes, it passes precipitately from one extreme to the other.” This sort of juxtaposition of ideas does little to offer coherency since there are no universals prior to singulars.

Sheen notes, “The Scholastic principle of progress and continuity is metaphysical, not biological. It applies to all the kingdoms of the universe, and with greater applicability and logic than any of the modern applications. The continuity and fluidity of the universe may be viewed either statically or dynamically. Statically, the continuity is revealed in the unfolding of the principle: a higher nature in its lowest perfection touches a lower nature in its highest perfection. Dynamically, the same conclusion is revealed in the application of the principle, the more perfect the nature, the less the movement.”

The fact that we can know with confidence at all, means that knowing is grounded in a Higher intelligibility. “Knowledge is not a push from below, but a gift from above.” So when we Reason, we are progressing from a conserved principle to a revealed conclusion. 

But somewhere along the line, we stopped submitting ourselves to the First Principle. God became equivalent to progress, and man started to identify what is perfect with what is imperfect.

Sheen says,
“Until the fifteenth century, human nature was considered perfectible by a gratuitous gift of God. Grace was not the destruction of nature; it was its perfection. From that time began a war against all extrinsic authority, either in the form of the church as with Luther, or of the speculative intelligence as with Kant, or of government as with Rousseau. The biological hypothesis of evolution was taken over, and was held by many to imply that for the perfectibility of human nature by a gift of God was substituted perfectibility through the natural laws of progress and becoming. In other words, until the fifteenth century, nature and grace were regarded as superposed, one being the perfection of the other. Then came the new notion, one of juxtaposition of nature and grace.”
Where there was once a beautiful continuity and progress of all orders, e.g. between metaphysics, reason, revelation, theology, cosmology, etc, all now got reduced down to biological continuity. And if there was a God, He now got reduced from an object of knowledge to an object of experience (where there were no principles to render those experiences intelligible).

While biological evolution explains the how or the process (and it doesn’t even do that well; see here); it will never explain the origin of nature. Modern philosophy reconciles this by making the nature of God consist in evolution. But a God that is too bound up in the cosmos with becoming, can be of no service to it. He is brought to move as an imperfection to possess more perfection with man. But the “imperfect is intelligible only in virtue of the perfect. To reverse this process is to bring chaos into philosophy.”

“The whole was no more than a deification of man, “who will have no other gods but me;” and a humanization of the Divine. The Absolutist denied morality to God to save His absoluteness; the Pragmatist denied absoluteness to save His morality; and the biological philosopher makes the supreme renunciation: He gives up God to save man.”

Man had succeeded in making God a silent partner — and in his man-made image and likeness.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Discoveries without Conclusions

These days have been bearing witness to the annihilation of my expectations of this life. It has many moments where the reflection is that of a suffering fool. But the fool can have the last laugh if he stays obedient to Heaven.

I rarely find dreams worth a mention due to their whimsical nature. But I did have a recent dream where I had a sweet encounter with my estranged father. After he swung a few unsuccessful shots at me, I asked gently “what are you doing?” At that moment he embraced me (and metaphorically my brokenness). It had a vividness to it that gave me lasting comfort. I have not acted on it, but it has been passively activating me.

I feel suffering as a vehicle with meaning, where my being available to it conveys how much joy can be available for me. If I pay attention to what is actually at hand (rather than what I imagine to be at hand) and then bless it, It blesses me. My forgiveness to myself is what undivides me.

I'm done striving for mountain tops. I prefer the rock bottom, but not in a masochistic sort of way.

I recently heard one of St. Augustine's definitions for sin translates into “caved in around myself.” Interiorly, this is like the mind curled around itself, its self-image, the pre-occupations of the narcissistic discursive self. Exteriorly, this no better expressed than our smartphone addiction. Just consider how our postures exudes the image of the body curled around and isolated by the device. We are walking, thinking sinners!

But if we choose to place our attention away from all this distraction and gently go into our pain, we can sense a core wound waiting to be healed. We don't need to understand or process it, just be with it.

Once truly seen, our brokenness is embraced into the whole while ever new Life breathes through us.

*
My latest non-dual teacher crush is Jon Bernie; for no other reason than I like his presence and skillfulness. When it comes to Truth and Method, sometimes they don't always align in the way we would prefer. So I'm not necessarily on the non-dual bandwagon, as I am on the path to being divinely human. Jon Bernie seems to embody that in a way that resonates with me.


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Why I Am Not a Libertarian?

Although there are several schools of libertarianism, at their core they all uphold liberty as the ultimate principle. And while liberty is necessary in a democratic capitalistic society, it is not sufficient. As the Aphorist notes, “Liberty is not an end, but a means. Whoever mistakes it for an end does not know what to do once he attains it.”

Ironically, Judeo-Christian values helped shape the ethos of democratic capitalism, but since that ethos forbids any religion to rule, those values are now being undermined by the secular world. Hence, we have lost of our “moral center.”

As David Brooks comments in a recent column, “A deadly combination of right-wing free-market fundamentalism and left-wing moral relativism led to a withering away of moral norms and shared codes of decent conduct. We ripped the market out of its moral and social context and let it operate purely by its own rules. We made the market its own priest and confessor. Society came to be seen as an atomized collection of individual economic units pursuing self-interest. Selfishness was normalized. As Steven Pearlstein puts it in his outstanding book, “Can American Capitalism Survive?” ‘Old-fashioned norms around loyalty, cooperation, honesty, equality, fairness and compassion no longer seem to apply in the economic sphere.’ ”

On a deeper plane of Reality, we always embedded in a story and not an “atomized collection of individual economic units.” As such, we need a framework as to how this story is guided.

Michael Novak got me to see this best in his seminal book. He remarks, “Democratic capitalism is more likely to perish through its loss of its indispensable ideas and morals than through weaknesses in its political system or its economic system. In its moral-cultural system lies its weakest link.”

And so, “the system qua system will be moral if two conditions are met. First, the design must include pluralistic institutions which permit both liberty and virtue to prosper. Second, the system of moral and religious culture must instruct individuals in the ways of liberty and virtue. Such a design rests upon an exact diagnosis of human frailty on the one hand, and of the effects, intended and unintended, of institutional arrangements on the other.”

So like most libertarians, I am not arguing for some state-sponsored coercion to bring back moral norms. This would never work in any case. But unlike the libertarian, I do believe we need a culture that is supportive of a moral telos. And that may require some guidance from the state and the social fabric of institutions that can reinvigorate such an ethos.

(Ideally, the state should primarily supplement, and not substitute, for the areas where the social fabric has gone beyond repair. See here, for a good read on this.)

So while I agree with the libertarian that much needs to start from the bottom-up with the individual! — I also do believe, in our tribal and morally conflicted society, that the state (as top-down low-entropy guardian) and non-governmental institutions/associations/affiliations (as bottom-up moral subcultures) need to play roles that are mutually supportive.

While there are no easy answers, the libertarian option is overly permissive to a culture that needs to yield to moral constraints, cultivate a covenant of social trust, and bend towards an inspired telos with a common purpose.