The repudiation of science, a stance adopted by some political and religious leaders these days, is a symptom of soul sickness that opens the door to chaos. This is not because science is infallible. It is not. Science is based on inductive reasoning; consequently, its conclusions can never be absolute or necessary. Its truths are, in the language of modern epistemology, synthetic, not analytic. The knowledge that we gain through the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation, through testing truth claims against evidence to verify or falsify them, is approximate and thus ever subject to revision. The whole history of science is a record of such midcourse corrections, suggesting that no scientific discovery can be presumed to be the final one. Good scientists know this; bad ones don’t. There is a humility built into inductive knowledge that keeps us from concluding that we have the final word on any matter, because we don’t know what new evidence might come along tomorrow. As William James tells us, we can know, but we cannot know that we know. At the same time, by providing a common, shared standard for what counts as truth, scientific thinking exposes subjective claims stated as though they were objectively true—a practice of dictators, liars, and madmen. The circular argument that maintains that, “X is true because I say it is,” is not only hubristic but also fallacious and therefore unconvincing. We cannot establish the truth of a claim simply by asserting it, for the simple reason that false claims also can be asserted.
The claims of science must pass the rigorous test of correspondence to evidence. For this reason alone, dictators, liars, and madmen have no use for science, or for evidence for that matter, except where the evidence falls in step with their designs. They do not want their feet held to the fire of an objective standard because such a standard is a baseline for accountability. Plato takes this up in the Euthyphro, where Socrates runs into Euthyphro, who is on his way to the Lyceum to prosecute his father for impiety. Socrates engages him in a discussion about the nature of piety during which Euthyphro tries five times to state what piety is, each time without success. Finally, he confesses his assumption that piety consists of the action he is taking in prosecuting his father—in other words, that piety is defined by what Euthyphro is about to do. Socrates suggests that this is backwards, that we cannot establish that an act is pious simply because we do it; rather, we must be sure that we do what we do because it is pious. At this point in the dialogue, Euthyphro, having had enough of self-examination and of Socrates, abruptly ends the conversation and hurries off.
An act is not made pious because we do it any more than a claim is made true because we state it. It is a cause for concern when political leaders present as established truths, claims that fly in the face of the facts, when they maintain that “science doesn’t know” and make truth claims that cannot be verified or falsified, when they declare that there are “alternative facts” that have no evidentiary legitimacy. The claims that climate change is not real, that the coronavirus is nothing to worry about or that a cure is just around the corner, that 545 immigrant children who were forcibly separated from their parents are being “so well taken care of” living in detentions centers that are “so clean” are deeply disturbing. Anyone who repeatedly makes such claims, dismissing obvious evidence to the contrary, is either badly misinformed, lying, or delusional, any of which should be disqualifying in someone entrusted with the general welfare.
Being badly misinformed is a forgivable sin that can be corrected easily enough provided that there is a willingness to admit error and defer to evidence-based truth. It is no deficiency of character to get something wrong; it is, however, a great deficiency of character to be unteachable, to be unwilling or unable to admit wrong and make the needed corrections, to double-down on false opinions when confronted with contradicting evidence. Again, there is a primal choice here between humility and hubris before the truth as something greater than our will. The truth is what it is; the refusal to admit and work within this epistemological framework is a sign of arrested development or perhaps some farther reaching pathology. Science itself, as we have said, is susceptible to error, but the scientific method provides for self-correction. It is, in this sense, teachable. Being misinformed but also refusing to move beyond baseless subjective claims is serious. Lying, especially if it is chronic or compulsive, is more serious, and more serious still is that disorder of the psyche that leads to magical thinking, which is delusional, meaning that the one making the claim cannot distinguish between what is true and what he or she wishes to be true. It is human nature to interpret things in ways that present us in a favorable light. Psychologists call this “attribution bias,” which may lead us to excuse in ourselves behavior that we are quick to regard as blameworthy in others. The distortion of truth to which our political leaders have subjected us daily, however, is something unprecedented on the national stage in its scope, audacity, and relentlessness. When the truth is routinely and willfully ignored, denied, or distorted for the purpose of manipulating and controlling others, we are dealing with something far more insidious and malevolent than attribution bias.
The choice between humility and hubris is the fulcrum upon which all of this hinges. It is a choice that determines and reveals a person’s character, and contrary to what much of the electorate seems to have accepted, character not only matters, it matters more than anything else. A man who has no humility and so, no regard or respect for the truth, who makes claims that fly in the face of the facts in the hope that his stating and restating them will make them so, and worse, who does this to further selfish ambitions, and worse still, who believes his own fabrications, is a man of the most dangerous sort both to himself and to others. The truth is greater than the will of even the most hubristic demagogue. As Shakespeare admonishes us in The Merchant of Venice: “truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son may, but at the length truth will out.” The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles makes the same point in Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus, a false king infatuated with his will and in blatant defiance of the gods, unwittingly sets into motion forces that lead him to a tragic fate. In the end, whether it suits us or not, however much we may wish it were otherwise, things are as they are. Science at its best, for all the limitations of inductive knowledge, for all its shortcomings and missteps, is rooted in an abiding commitment to the truth. There is a lesson in this that extends to all areas of life: Facing the truth squarely, unflinchingly, acknowledging and deferring to it, is the only safe and sustainable course.
24 October, 2020
Many at the highest levels of government in the U.S. over the last four years have been busy pursuing selfish, partisan objectives at great expense to civil society. Minds are largely closed; discussion and debate have deteriorated into shouting matches. The evidence of reason and science are routinely denied and dismissed if they do not fall in step with personal ambitions, and urbanity and politeness have been demonized as submission to “political correctness.” The Greeks had a name for such people. They called them “idiotes.” For the Greeks, the measure of a human being lay in that excellence of character demonstrated in a range of virtues, all of which look beyond selfish gratification to the greater aim of promoting the general welfare. These virtues include truthfulness, humility, self-possession, meeting one’s responsibilities, empathy, the willingness to own up to one’s mistakes, slowness to anger and reaction, winning and losing graciously, forgiveness, living up to the same standards that one holds for others, conducting oneself with dignity, playing fair, courage, sound judgment, reasonableness, respect and consideration for others, high-mindedness and openmindedness, and so on. None of these is esoteric. As children, we learned early that we should tell the truth, and that lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong. We were taught the importance of playing well with others and playing fair, of cooperating, being empathetic, and restraining the impulse to push to the front of the line.
The measure of a human has not changed since we were two and a half nor in two and a half millennia. It is the same today that it was then. Life calls us to live up to what it means to be a man or woman, to cultivate and abide in the virtues whispered by our better angels, to live up to them as a sacred trust and potential, even when we stand to lose some worldly objective. And what, we might ask, is the virtue of virtue? Why be virtuous? It is simply this: Our happiness and the fulfillment of our humanity depend upon the state of our soul. Ultimately, virtue is not only its own reward but the only sustainable path. The way of the idiotes leads to destruction, suffering, and tragedy. It is toxic, poisoning both the self and the community. Allowed free reign, it spreads like a cancer, eventually corrupting the body and mind, personal and professional relationships, family, nation, and world, Only good character can be trusted to lead and sustain us into the uncertain future. The belief that character does not matter, that anything else is more important, is so monumentally misguided, it can result in the loss of 205,000 lives. And counting.
Immersed in a sense of entitlement, the idiotes act out of blind self-interest with no regard for the impact of their actions on others. As they have no interest in self-examination and the improvement of character, which the Greeks regarded as the cornerstone of true and abiding happiness, they remain unteachable. Yet this unteachability is a superficial symptom of a much deeper dysfunction, for it should not be necessary to teach adults the lessons that we must learn as children in order to become emotionally, mentally, and spiritually mature adults. Central to this development is the establishing of a consciousness of boundaries and the limits of our will that make it clear where the self ends and others begin. Boundaries allow us to recognize what is not okay. We expect it to inform the behavior of adults whose development has not been arrested, and where it is absent, its absence is shocking.
Last night’s U.S. presidential debacle (billed as a debate) was a toxic display of reckless belligerence and wanton disregard for boundaries that left no room for even the pretense of civility. Viewed as symptomatic, it was a serious and disturbing indictment of the state of the nation, one pointing to a widespread sickness in our society that has nothing to do with the coronavirus, a soul sickness that, left unchecked, may prove fatal. Yeats describes a similar zeitgeist in his chilling poem, The Second Coming, expressing his pessimism about the future of humanity and the world in the run-up to World War I:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The same forces were at work in the 1930s with the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany. Sadly, the world has never been without the idiotes. We only can pray that those who suffer from this sickness of the soul prove to be a tiny minority in America. Come November, when the ballots have been counted and the election certified, the idiotes may fall from power, canceled by a clear majority of voters like a vulgar reality TV show. The pendulum of the dialectic swings far only to swing back. Many of us in the U.S. who love our country enough to hold it to high standards are clinging to the hope that, despite appearances, the best of us is still alive and well at the center of the maelstrom of chaos we are witnessing and enduring. And that it is not too late to save in ourselves all it means to be human.
30 September, 2020
Growing up without clearly defined boundaries that establish and delimit the sense of a personal self can lead to emotional, psychological, and spiritual problems as well as to serious social maladaptations such as acting out, victimhood, magical thinking, codependency and enabling, and in severe cases, narcissism and other personality disorders, to name only some.
Unfortunately, there are a number of wildly popular philosophies that in promoting the idea that the world, including other people, is nothing more than an outpicturing of personal consciousness, obfuscate or deny personal boundaries. These philosophies include the so-called law of attraction, New Thought, the work of Neville Goddard, and the Hawaiian ho’oponopono forgiveness technique presented by Hew Len, all of which propose that the practitioner can alter worldly conditions solely by changing his or her consciousness, where those conditions are said to originate. This idea can be highly misleading precisely because it contains a seed of truth that opportunists can misconstrue to exploit those susceptible to the countless movies, books, lectures, workshops, coaching, and other instructional offerings that claim to hold the key to magical manipulation of the world.
This seed of truth lies in the correspondence between self and world, an idea at least as old as Vedic advaita or “nonduality” and confirmed by quantum physics in the revolutionary discovery that objective reality is “observer-dependent.” Even at the level of everyday experience, this correspondence is easy enough to spot. A man who goes out into the world looking for a fight will not have to wait long to find one, while someone who believes that people are basically good-natured, mean well, and do their best will not be disappointed. Round peg, round hole. Reality may be “out there” in some way that scientists and philosophers have had a hard time explaining, but there is no doubt that we screen in and screen out according to our lights, and that at least to that extent, observation is participation. So does our consciousness inform our experience of the world and others. More mysteriously, this principle of correspondence operates at least sometimes along nonlocal trajectories, showing up as surprising fulfillments, happy coincidences, serendipitous timings, synchronicities, and those seeming interruptions of cause and effect generally regarded as miracles. While such extraordinary events do occur, they appear to do so as though with a will and timing of their own rather than as the effect of willful intentions to cause or “attract” them, which is why they cannot be coerced into a method, and this is where the seed of truth gets buried alive in the soil of untruth, for these popular philosophies all claim to have “the secret” to managing the element of correspondence through techniques that invariably deny the boundaries of personal identity, leading to needless confusion, failure, and disappointment.
New Thought “treatment,” for example, is founded on the assumption that the world, including other people, is an outpicturing of the beliefs of the practitioner. To treat another, therefore, one need only treat oneself, for when one has resolved the “mistaken” belief in his or her own consciousness that presumably is being expressed in the “patient,” the patient’s condition will spontaneously resolve, thus making the “demonstration.” This, at least, is the theory. That said, I’ve spoken to New Thought ministers around the country, all of whom reported that among hundreds of their congregants who practice this sort of treatment regularly, about three percent see results. Three percent. Here is a number so low, it constitutes the exception rather than the rule. Clearly, what is most likely occurring in these exceptional cases is a happy coincidence rather than the demonstration of a so-called law. Imagine if the law of gravity worked only three percent of the time! Of course, when the technique doesn’t work, the practitioner can always rationalize that the required faith was missing, that some further troublemaking belief was operating in the shadows. No amount of evidence that the assumption underlying the technique simply is false is allowed to count against this sort of “faith,” because the justification is always available that the necessary inner condition must have been lacking, a tour de force of circular reasoning. Worse, these approaches often are presented as “scientific,” by which is meant that they are empirically verifiable and repeatable, neither being the case. Karl Popper’s work, which identifies falsifiability as a criterion of legitimately scientific hypotheses, cautions us that any proposition that would not allow itself to be falsified under any possible conditions is not scientific at all but pseudoscientific. The refusal to admit any possible falsification is in fact a hallmark of dogmatic, fundamentalist, and militant thinking of every stripe. Yet many writers and speakers have made a living if not a fortune off the willingness of the credulous to swallow undigested such nonsensical, grandiose, and unfalsifiable claims.
Neville Goddard goes as far as stating that “other people are yourself pushed out,” meaning that others are objective representations of one’s imaginal stagings and self-talk concerning them, and adds flat out that they have no free will to resist any claim projected on them imaginally. Curiously however, he notes that others do have the free will, once having fulfilled these imaginal projections, to immediately reject them, a tour de force of “now you see it, now you don’t” philosophical sleight-of-hand. Even so, the view that the world, including other people, is nothing more than a construct of one’s personal consciousness has a name in philosophy: solipsism. As a philosophical position, solipsism, which alleges that only the self exists, that only oneself is real and that the world is its personal dream, is not only existentially unsettling and morally repugnant but also dangerous, because in undermining the reality of others, it annihilates empathy. It is, in short, the philosophy of the megalomaniac. When we hear a presidential candidate declare, “I alone can fix it,” we are in the company of the solipsist. Ho’oponopono’s contention that the practitioner is “totally responsible” for everything he or she experiences in the world, including how others behave, is another solipsistic assertion.
The underlying unity of consciousness and the world, of observer and observed, operates impersonally, transcending individual will and separate identity. Because it transcends individual will, it cannot be controlled or manipulated willfully. The very attempt backfires. Oneness is all-inclusive. Paradoxically, this means that it includes otherness. There is a profound mystical truth hidden in Goddard’s statement that “other people are yourself pushed out”—indeed, the whole world and the universe beyond exist within the Self, the one Consciousness of which we are part, each and all—but a great misunderstanding of this principle of nonduality comes in when we try to use it strategically to manipulate others, whereupon it becomes solipsistic and false. Attempting to live at the level of the oneness of consciousness when one has not transcended separate identity leads to the violation of personal boundaries. In the transcending of separate identity, personal boundaries are conserved, not ignored or flouted. One can see how readily a seed of truth can be turned into a highly marketable system of lies.
Despite these fatal flaws, there is value to be found in these philosophies, provided one rejects the underlying solipsistic assumption and shuns magical thinking in favor of self-work. Ho’oponopono practice, for example, offers four short, powerful mantric phrases—”I’m sorry,” “please forgive me,” “thank you,” and “I love you”—that may provide deep emotional release and resolution in areas where one feels the need to be forgiven or suffers from a shortage of gratitude. In a similar way, another’s behavior may call us to step up to assert or enforce a needed boundary. In a situation of physical abuse, for example, it is seriously misguided for the victim to believe that something in his or her consciousness is creating the abuser’s violence, but spot on for the victim to take responsibility for “creating” the situation through the willingness to remain in it. Correspondence between inner and outer can be exceedingly subtle and indirect, often operating through complementary roles and stances. New Thought “treatment” without the solipsistic element might move us to examine what we’re bringing to a problematic situation or troubled relationship that could stand improving in ourselves, and we should not be surprised if, stepping up to the needed self-work, we find that the situation or relationship improves accordingly. Even the so-called law of attraction can be useful if one takes it no further than the insightful idea that our consciousness informs our experience through the self-fulfilling and self-proving power of belief, and is careful not to mistake this for the ability to “attract” or create specific conditions at will, an ability we do not possess outside the pretensions of magical thinking.
We owe it to ourselves and each other to be careful what we believe. Despite the undeniability of the subjective amphitheater and various shamanic, yogic, and other ancient practices that employ transpersonal levels of awareness in the realization of nonduality, others exist in their own right, apart from our individual consciousness and certainly from our will, though we have some responsibility for how we experience and engage them. Reality is at once subjective and objective in a way that defies rational mapping. Subjectivizing reality denies otherness, clearing the way for exploitation. Because others are real in their otherness, they remain autonomous and responsible for their choices and actions. We cannot by intending, visualizing, imagining, or otherwise altering our consciousness control them, nor would anyone with a sound sense of self want to do so. We may benefit from soul-searching and self-correction in any situation where we’re playing a part in co-creating a problem, and perhaps find ways to extend a benign influence through altering our consciousness at deep levels, but beyond this, we are wise to steer clear of those selling solipsistic programs, who offer us counterfeit power by encouraging us to view others as nothing more than constructs of our personal consciousness, for in peddling the magical thinking of the child, they dismiss essential boundaries of the self, exaggerate the will, undermine empathy, and while promising the key to heaven on earth, lead us into the malebolges of hell.
18 August, 2020
Allowing is an all but lost art. Sometimes termed “nonresistance,” it makes an appearance in spiritual traditions that include Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity; informs some of the martial arts, most notably tai chi; and serves as the cornerstone of the political philosophies of such luminaries as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. It is fair and accurate to think of allowing as an art because, as with any art, it requires a fine sensibility of discernment and expression that few cultivate; a receptivity to beautiful, noble, and uplifting principles; and a dedicated connection to intuitive awareness.
Allowing allows us to move with life, with changing conditions and circumstances, with adversity and disappointment, with how others act or fail to act, and in all of this, to remain self-possessed, grounded, present, and poised, free of both resistance and reaction. The wisdom of living this way is rooted in a life principle that most have us have observed many times—that engaging the world, including other people, through the force of our will invariably leads to unforeseen and unwanted outcomes, reverse effects, and failure. It is a lesson we may suffer again and again with little learning. The resistance that relentlessly buys us this sort of trouble is essentially mental rather than physical—an inner judgment that seeks to control and manipulate and manage externals, to impose its agenda and schedule, to demand compliance. Even when there is also an element of physical resistance, the problem is fundamentally the inner state. If you stub your toe on a chair, for example, and meet this with resistance, then in a flash you will find yourself consumed by a state of constriction. You might blame yourself for being so clumsy, blame uncaring fortune, even blame the chair. If the resistance is sufficient, you might kick the chair (again!) or strike it with your fist, adding injury to injury. And as improbable as it may sound to someone immersed in such reactions, someone sound asleep to the art of allowing, the extent of the pain and damage is more a consequence of the inner resistance than the strictly physical impact. To be clear: if you can remain conscious and unresisting in that flashpoint when you see stars for a moment, if you move with rather than against the experience inwardly, releasing all resistance to the moment, just breathing through it, refusing the inner prompting to take up combat, then you simultaneously release yourself to a better outcome. There will be no second insult, and the severity of the first, brought under the jurisdiction of allowing, will be far lessened.
Allowing is an art that the ego-driven identity is loathe to consider let alone practice. Yet as with all arts, its power to uplift, to express the good and beautiful and true, and to materialize graceful outcomes is limitless. There is no situation that allowing will not improve. Hearing this, the willful self recoils, for it hears this as invitation to weakness, to capitulation, to tolerating the intolerable, to descending into chaos. But allowing is none of these things. It is, rather, the one thing that the personal self cannot imagine, and so finds mortally threatening—that is, a call to embody the impersonal Self, referred to by some as Infinite Intelligence, Great Spirit, Father/Mother, the Tao, God, Life, the Universe, and so on. Nameless, Its names are many. It is the living, Self-Aware Presence, the oceanic Consciousness in which each of us participates, and which the willful, separate self misappropriates as personal. This higher Self creates and sustains all that is, each moment, through the stunning power, agency, and efficiency of allowing.
Because the willful identity thrives on resistance, on “winning,” on usurping, it tries to grab the world by the throat, and the world, of course, runs away. The more we try to impose our will, the more we are subjected to adverse results. In the end, we cannot make anything happen, and even in those cases where it appears we have done so, an honest assessment of the situation quickly reveals that an indeterminate number of factors that were not subject to our will fell nicely into place to produce the desired outcome. Anyone who takes credit for a victory, however small, has failed to recognize the contributions of fate, and as the ancient Greeks warn, the gods make it a point to humble those guilty of hubris.
Allowing does not mean that we tolerate or resign ourselves to the thing before us, since both of these involve resistance. Rather, in the moment of allowing, we release our will and meet whatever is happening in a spirit of willingness. Where the ego-self constricts when its presumed interests are thwarted, allowing expands, creating a spaciousness in which things have room to move and shift and resolve. This simple inner adjustment allows us to stand in the fire of experience without being burned. It is the first step into a friendlier universe than many ever even suspect is here, available to us, alongside the unfriendly one we have unwittingly created for ourselves. Heaven and hell, side by side—the difference being not the place itself, but how we carry ourselves through it.
Allowing allows, Period. Where allowing sees others not allowing, resisting, persecuting—allowing allows them. In the practice of this art, no one is left behind. It does not hate the haters, but in the face of their hatred, cultivates itself. Because allowing is not blinded by its own reactions and the wounds of the past, it lives in the present. Because it lives in the present, it sees things as they are. All art discerns and expresses truth. To see others through the eyes of allowing, even those drowning in a sea of resistance and hubris, is to see them as they are—wounded, lost, deformed by pain, blindly bent on destroying themselves and others.
Allowing opens up unseen channels that lead us straightaway to our good and protect us from the painful effects of willfulness. It is, in this way, a philosopher’s stone and golden key to living well. In time, we come to realize that anything we gain from the world through resistance exacted too high a price, and that we’re well rid of anything that may fall from our hands in the practice of allowing. In allowing, there is no chasing, no waiting for this or that, no disappointment, no resentment, no enemy, no suffering. Taking refuge in the great Impersonal, we find even personal concerns perfected. As we stand on the high ground of allowing, we see that there is nothing the world has to offer us that we don’t already possess in artful self-possession, and nothing the world can take from us that we cannot gladly relinquish.
31 July, 2020
Many of us who remember the civil unrest in the streets of the U.S. over racial injustice in the 60s are watching with heavy hearts at how much ground we’ve lost since. The Black Lives Matter movement, not long ago considered fringe, has become an irresistible force sweeping across the country like a tidal wave, a juggernaut that we can hardly imagine will fail, this time, to compel real and lasting change and finally put a leash on the feral dog of so-called white supremacy and racial bullying that has inflicted untold anguish on the innocent.
The problem with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” of course, is that it shouldn’t need to be said. It is perfectly obvious to anyone whose psyche has not been contorted by hatred, but there are those who have refused to use the phrase, insisting instead that “All Lives Matter,” not out of any sense of universal equality and intrinsic human worth, but rather for political ends, to avoid conspicuously aligning themselves with the legitimate and longstanding grievances of black communities. The shameful history in the U.S. of racial prejudice, oppression, and human rights violations perpetrated against blacks has made it necessary to declare the obvious because to this day, every essential social agency—economics, education, justice, law enforcement, politics, health care, and others—systematically excludes or marginalizes blacks as though their lives do not matter. Leaders who promote or endorse this systemic violence, overtly or through opportunistic silence, are complicit in its crimes and should be held accountable. The tragic and needless deaths of George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and others is nothing new to black Americans but a recurring nightmare that has left them, their families, and their children terrified in a way that “white lives” may find hard to grasp. “Black Lives Matter” is not singling out black lives as though they matter more than other lives or matter uniquely. It is the inevitable reaction to a truth denied—the truth proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence in the acknowledgment that “all men are created equal.” And while the language used by the founding fathers was necessarily limited by their awareness, we recognize today that “men” includes all people without exemption based on race, gender, age, sexual or gender orientation, ethnic background, religious or political convictions, or any other of the diverse variations on the human theme.
In the Black Lives Matter movement, we are witnessing a dialectical event that, not by accident, has coincided with the pandemic and with unprecedented spasms of global weather, as though Life as something beyond our will is trying to get our attention, to wake us up and steer us away from self-destruction. The common lesson among these three is that we’re all in this together, and even more profoundly, that there is one Life, one Logos in which we, each and all, participate. What affects my Chinese counterpart in Wuhan affects me. An assault on our black neighbors in Minneapolis is an assault on all of us. Ravaging the planetary ecosystem through reckless overproduction, rampant consumerism, and the delusional pursuit of unchecked economic growth is suicidal. Those leaders who have turned a blind eye to the existential crises we are now facing, who stoke the flames of hatred and divisiveness, are as anachronistic as the Confederate flag. Because there is only one Life, one precious Life that we did not create, all lives matter, and because we have enabled and tolerated racism, yes, to be sure, black lives matter. Our black brothers and sisters, along with others who have taken a stand with them in their good and heroic cause, are offering us yet another wake-up call, alongside super hurricanes, firestorms, floods, the dying off of entire species, and the coronavirus. If we are to have a future, then by all the signs, we had better wake up soon.
28 June, 2020
Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.
| Neils Bohr
Many years ago, I drove out west to see the Grand Canyon. I remember standing in front of a trail sign atop a wooden post with a diagram of the immediate view across the gorge and some text noting that the rocky prominence on the other side, despite appearances and the sort of spatial assumptions one would make based on more familiar distances, is three miles away. As the sun arcs across the sky, striations of purple, orange, and red fade into shadows that seem to elongate and vanish into the rock face like ghosts. At its deepest point, the floor of the canyon is a mile straight down. Here, the earth seems extraterrestrial.
Venturing within twenty meters of the abyss, I began to feel the gravitational pull. More than cautionary, it felt primal. There are places where stocky guard rails stand between visitors snapping vacation pictures and the craggy nothingness beyond, but the thing is so massive, most of it is open and accessible to the few intrepid souls who are determined to get a closer look. Despite the almost neurological aversion I was feeling, I walked well back from the rim until I found a rock jutting out over the chasm and made up my mind that I would venture out and sit there while my daughter captured the moment with her camera. Through sheer force of will, I inched my way onto the rock holding my breath and sat, cross-legged. My daughter took the shot, and when we came upon it later, we saw that I was leaning backward some thirty degrees. It left me wondering how astronauts feel on a spacewalk in that moment when they look up and behold the cosmic expanse hanging before them, and if they have the sense that they might fall into it at any moment. Gazing at that photo of myself, sitting on that rock with every survival nerve in me firing to resist the vertiginous pull of nothingness, I thought of the Mohawk high-steel workers who had constructed the World Trade Center, and I wondered what they had coursing through their veins that allowed them to move about blithely on open girders hundreds of feet in the air with infinity under their feet as though they were taking a stroll down Fifth Avenue.
It’s not just at the dizzying edge of the Grand Canyon or on the high-wire skeletons of skyscrapers that the reliable foothold of terra firma suddenly falls away. There are other kinds of abysses, and philosophy is no stranger to them. Ontology, for example, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature not of particular beings but of being itself, begins with the strange question, “Why are there things rather than nothing?” It is an oceanic question of incalculable depth, one that pulls us toward nothingness as the primordial void out of which the whole universe arises into existence each moment. The new physics has come to the same conclusion, viz., that the so-called objective world around us, at the most intimate levels of matter, disperses into a gossamer realm of phantom entities flashing in and out of existence, neither wave nor particle, and more like a dream than a machine. Beyond that realm is a vast, perhaps infinite field of energy best described as “zero.”
Zero. Infinity. Nothingness. The same delimiting value shows up in epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with theories of knowledge—with how we know things, what it means to know, verifiability and falsifiability, and so on. Here, too, we see that all of our knowing is nothing more than an approximation, a collection of assumptions and suppositions laid out along a tenuous rope bridge suspended over a chasm of mystery that may be unraveled at any moment by the next discovery. Perhaps this is why when Chaerephon approached the Delphic Oracle and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, the Pythia replied, “No one is wiser,” yet Socrates’s wisdom lay in his knowing he had none. Today, one can hardly find this depth of humility. Experts abound in every field, promoting their educated guesswork as absolute truth, and in this posturing, we have lost far more than we have gained. As William James writes in The Will to Believe:
We may talk of the empiricist way and of the absolutist way of believing in truth. The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another.
Socratic humility—which means never forgetting that our knowledge is subject to error and thus revision—is essential to philosophical self-work, the liberating of belief from constricted states of false opinion and contradiction, and the expansion of awareness that allows it to embrace greater, ever more encompassing truths. There is little that hinders the process more than the hubristic assumption that our conclusions are infallible, which places us in danger of losing our balance and falling from a great height.
I was not afraid of the cavernous power I felt standing beside the Grand Canyon. I respected it. The hands that had fashioned it, that had brought forth our prolific living planet from nothingness amid a clockwork of other planets in a sea of space too vast to comprehend, also had fashioned me. The yawning drop from the rim to the bottom filled me with awe and a new awareness of the immense drawing power of infinity that lies under our feet all the time, even when we’re busy taking the world for granted and thinking that anything at all is ordinary or holding our conclusions with counterfeit certainty. Because our being and our knowledge, along with everything else, are rooted in mystery, dialectical transcendence and change for the better are possible at any moment. With a little humility, the possible becomes probable, and with a bit more, inevitable. The willful ego may cling fiercely to its false opinions, but it is in bowing before the depths of the mystery that we can be made whole, and standing before the sheer heights of existence, discover that we have wings.
25 May, 2020