Category Archives: Philosophy

Light, Darkness and Terrorism in Paris.

I think that it is appropriate that we keep things in perspective when it comes to thinking about the November attacks in Paris.

Yes, they are horrible and a real tragedy, both for France and for those involved, but despite their best efforts, the attackers managed a death toll that equals about two weeks of fatalities on France’s roads.

Symbol of Life - French Flag

Symbol of Life with French Flag Overlay Courtesy of Facebook.

 

 

3250 people died on France’s roads in 2013, but nobody batted an eyelid. A curfew wasn’t imposed, French people weren’t advised to remain indoors (or stop driving cars), and the country’s borders weren’t closed.

The difference of course, is that we have evolved to seek out meaningful, yet unfamiliar cues, perhaps because these are likely to be augurs of change and disruption. When we see something like the French attacks, we are drawn to them, like moths to a flame and if we aren’t careful, we risk getting burnt.

But there is more to it than that. As of today, there have been a reported 129 deaths (although this will surely rise, as some of those who survived succumb to their injuries), but a little over a month ago, 99 people died in the Ankara bombings in Turkey. I doubt many people in the West, even noticed. Similarly, on August 14, 2013, the Egyptian security forces massacred at least 817 (and likely more than 1,000) protesters in Rabaa Square.

These victims didn’t warrant a Facebook filter and their deaths seemed to be regarded by Westerners as “business as usual”, rather than tragedies for those countries.

Our responses to these attacks say something significant about ourselves and the comparative value that we place on the lives of people from a Christian, European country, compared to those who are “over there” and separated from us by culture, history and religion.

Perhaps one could say, “out of mind, out of sight”.

Irrespective of this, by giving ourselves over to histrionics and fear, we are allowing 8 or so Parisian terrorists to achieve exactly what they wanted: To instill fear and to force us into rash and self-destructive behaviours, such as the knee jerk rush to drop yet more bombs on the Middle East, despite the fact that yet more death will most likely only feed the narrative that sustains the toxic ideology behind these attacks.

Rather, we should recognise that while ISIS has claimed responsibility for this attack, the attackers (with the probable exception of one who was found with a forged Syrian passport) they appear to be French (or perhaps Belgian) nationals and as such are perhaps more indicative of French policy towards its Muslim minority, rather than any threat posed by ISIS to the West.

While 10% of French people are Muslim, French policy towards its Muslim population has been less than stellar, with many living in virtual slums, known as banlieues, where they are marginalised and face significant barriers to both education and employment. Despite its famous revolution of 1789, France is still run by an entrenched elite, with graduates from its Grandes écoles (Grand Schools), finding an easy path to the heights of political and civil service. Needless to say, the children of blue-collar workers, or minorities are very poorly represented within these schools.

Of course, I don’t say this to provide some sort of excuse for the terrorists. What they did was abhorrent and repulsive and if there is any justice in the Infiniverse, they will answer for their actions. But if we are ever going to be able to succeed in ending these sort of attacks, we need to understand the context in which they arise, lest, in our ignorance, we become their enablers.

To conflate these terrorists with Muslims as a whole, or Syrian refugees specifically (as has been done in the US presidential campaign, where Republican candidates have been quick to call for the complete exclusion of Syrian refugees from the US), is to create yet another divide between “Us” and “Them” that will only perpetuate everyone’s misery.

Indeed, Muslims are just as horrified by these attacks as anyone else. Waleed Aly, an Australian Muslim academic and media presenter, put it extraordinarily well when in a segment on The Project, when he said:

“We are all feeling a million raging emotions right now. I am angry at these terrorists. I am sickened by the violence and I am crushed for the families that have been left behind, but, you know what, I will not be manipulated.

“We all need to come together. I know how that sounds. I know it is a cliche, but it is also true because it is exactly what ISIL doesn’t want.”

Certainly, there are problems within modern Islam, just as there have historically been problems within all religions. But this does not mean that there is a problem within every Muslim.

So, rather than focusing on “Islam”, “Christianity”, “Buddhism”, “Atheism”, or whatever, I would suggest that instead, we focus on the choice between “Light” and “Dark”.

Light represents the forces of creation, growth, love, compassion, hope, optimism, honesty and forgiveness (among others). Darkness represents death, greed, selfishness, power, lies, destruction and the very negation of existence (among others).

One is Life affirming, the other is Life denying and although they exist in opposition, their relationship to each other and ourselves is far more complex than it might initially appear and these terms are not necessarily synonymous with “good” and “evil”.

Once we start to think in this way and assuming that we are not entirely blinkered, we can see that both Light and Dark exist not only within every society, but within every person. Once we understand this, we can more easily recognise that each of us have a choice, but that our choice isn’t about what we believe, but about whether we choose the path of Light, the path of Darkness, or decide to fluff about in the middle.

Most of us (including those terrorists) mindlessly believe that we have chosen the path of Light, but such a commitment requires that we be perfectly honest with ourselves about our own failures and the Darkness within. Failure to engage honestly with our own weakness, temptation and failure will lead us into Darkness because dishonesty and lies are by definition, the negation of truth.

Honesty also requires that we admit that while we may have chosen the path of Light, none on this planet (without exception!) are, or ever have been, worthy of claiming to be Beings, or Avatars of Light. Whether we talk about, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, all the prophets, saints, or ourselves, we are all flawed and in committing to a path, we are merely starting on our journey, not arriving at our destination. Thinking otherwise is hubris.

Having made a commitment to Light, we are now in a position to reach out to others who have chosen our path, rather than blindly including, or excluding people simply because of what they profess to believe. Similarly, by committing ourselves to a path of Light, we can understand that what we happen to believe about the nature of the Divine is less important than how we chose to act and behave towards others.

Frankly, beliefs are only important to the extent that they drive behaviour. It matters little if one believes in a god, gods, or no god. What’s important is how we act towards others and whether we leave a trail of healing, or disaster in our wake. Do we build, or do we destroy? Do we forgive, or do we hold onto every grievance? Do we give generously, or do we take selfishly? Do we make war, or do we make peace?

By focusing on a paradigm of Light and Darkness (notice I say “Light and Darkness”, not “Light vs Darkness” – for reasons I will tackle in a later blog post) we can circumvent the silliness of painting particular groups (who are inevitably outsiders) as being somehow inherently “evil”, while others (ie. US!) are necessarily “good”. Instead of mindless stereotypes we can acknowledge that just because others are different from us, or don’t share our values, it does not therefore follow that they are bad.

In doing so, we can open our hearts and minds to the truth that while we are all different in many ways, we share a common humanity. It is this sense of shared humanity that will allow us to reach out to others and embrace them with their differences, so that we may survive and prosper in a world in which we are sorely tempted to cleave to our own and turn our faces away from the suffering of those outside our tribe, while arrogantly ignoring the festering Darkness within.

Jesus, Ego, Truth and Compassion.

Today, I’ve decided to respond to some of the ideas inherent in an article posted to the ABC’s excellent “Religion and Ethics” page. The astute reader will notice that I am not really responding to the stated thesis of “What’s Love Got to do with It? The Politics of the Cross” by Stanley Hauerwas, but more to the the underlying assumptions. These are often shared by dogmatic religious types irrespective of whether they are Christian, Islamic, or something else entirely. Indeed, one could easily extend this analysis to all sorts of secular “isms” and insanities.

 

Christ on the Cross

Christ on the Cross by Rembrandt
(Image courtesy of The Louvre)

The crux of Hauerwas’ argument is probably as follows: “Is it any wonder that Jesus was despised and rejected? Is it any wonder when the church is faithful to Christ that she finds herself persecuted and condemned? Yet if such a church does not exist, the world has no alternative to the violence hidden in our fear of one another.”

Jesus and the Church are not one and the same. If one reads the Gospels properly, it can be seen that Jesus was a failed human being, much like the rest of us. He lost his temper and he got violent (John 2:14-17). He lied (John 7:6-10). He cursed – literally (Mark 11:12-25)! He made false prophecy (Matthew 16:28). He was intensely resentful of those who didn’t believe his message (Matthew 11:20-24). He arguably invented the “thought crime” (Matthew 5:27-28). He never claimed to be “100% God and 100% man”.

Like many mystics before and after (including myself), Jesus was aware of his own Divinity and aware that there was another way, but found it difficult to live the life to which he was called. It is simply impossible to translate all of the nuances, subtleties and contradictions of Transcendent Experience into the mundane reality of the “monkey suit”.

By way of example, the Church is often a controlling, secretive, dogmatic organisation that has, since its creation by Roman Emperors sought to wield political influence of the most sordid sort. Its history is less about “an alternative to the violence” and more about the exercise of brutal, aggressive power and sometimes farcical zero sum politics. It is condemned, not because it is “faithful to Christ”, but because it is anything but faithful to the highest ideals to which he aspired.

The modern Catholic Church continues to protect child molesters within its ranks and avoid taking responsibility for the great evil it has committed. With a celibate (although clearly not chaste) clergy, it is obsessed by the sexual choices of others. Until the recent arrival of Pope Francis, its main focus has been on two issues that Jesus never even mentioned: Homosexuality and abortion. Other Christian Churches are rarely any better than the Roman variety.

Hauerwas’ essay is evidence enough of the failure of both Jesus and the Churches that have hijacked his life and teaching for their own purposes. The writer finds himself incapable of letting go of the rigidity of Dogma and the zero-sum thinking of religious absolutism and so has to shoehorn the life of Jesus into the story he wishes to create. I can’t help but suspect that only a person of great insecurity, or lack of imagination would need to posit that “the world has no alternative” to his view of reality and that only his prophet is a true representation of an Infinite Divine. As if the Infinite contained only one path, or had only one story to tell!

Blessed (or perhaps cursed) with visions of Infinite Divinity beyond normal comprehension, it is far too easy for the mystic to become trapped in grandiosity and ego. When Jesus claims that “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”, Pilate rightly retorts, “What is Truth?” (John 18:36-38). In doing so, he is engaging not with cynicism, but with a question that is fundamental to any understanding of reality and one which the Church and other spruikers of dogmatic certainty would rather you simply didn’t ask.

Jesus accepts his mystical understanding as truth and lacks the wisdom to question that “truth”. He fails to understand that it is a truth for him alone and that it is impossible to communicate a genuinely spiritual experience to another: The first Disciple, is always the first Heretic. 2000 years later, the real Jesus is well and truly lost in time, while modern revisionists claim to know his very thoughts and to be able to divine his ultimate purpose!

The truth is that an honest examination of the whole life of Jesus, as described in the Gospels, represents a conundrum only to those who imagine him to be something he wasn’t. Yes, he was Divine, but only to the extent that we are all Divine. More importantly, for both good and ill, he was as human as us and the greatest lessons that we can learn from his life are lost if we forget this.

Matthew tells us that his last words on the cross were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46), clearly demonstrating that rather than being “100% God”, this was a man who was experiencing the disillusionment and loss of faith as his mystical ideas and imaginings clashed with the brutal, painful, terrifying reality of his impending death. Those words were not spoken by a god about to realise his grand plan, but by a frightened man faced with the real possibility of oblivion and the collapse of everything that he had held dear in his life.

Jesus’ last words on the cross, his failed prophecies and his frequent demonstrations of hubris, should give a warning to those of us who share his mystical journey: The “Truth” that we glimpse within the heart of Transcendent Experience, is often not literal truth and we should resist the urge to impose our reality on those around us, lest reality bites back.

If we pretend that Jesus was God, then we are forced to deny his human failings and waste time and energy on apologetics that deny the plain truth of the Gospels. If we recognise that Jesus was only human, we are freed to accept him as he was. We can open our eyes and our hearts to the truth of his story and realise that history has been replete with mystical voices who have called us to a better way. Even more exciting, we can see the life of Jesus as an invitation to engage with our own Mystical journey and to connect with the Divine Reality that lies within the heart of each of us.

The ideals of compassion, mercy, love, justice, tolerance, sacrifice and courage (among others) are all present within the story of Jesus. But so too are they present within the lives of Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius and thousands of other people throughout the ages. When we attempt to impose our reality on others, we inevitably destroy these very virtues, because when we believe ourselves right, and all others as wrong, we stop listening and deny empathy to the “other”; we become incapable of expressing the values we claim our God represents to any but our own.

Rather than working to prove our God’s “Truth” above all others, we should be working to connect with those who share our values and who share our vision of a better world irrespective of how their culture might happen to have packaged those truths.

I firmly believe that people of good will can find a win-win solution to the ills of our world and create a future of peace and harmony. But nothing sabotages good will and creates evil so quickly as the belief that everyone must conform to our view of reality and that people are evil and beholden to Darkness, simply because they believe differently.

The struggle between Light and Dark occurs both within and across cultures.

It is only by letting go of our own rigidity and by empathetically embracing the Divinity of others that we will ever be able to achieve the peace and prosperity that the people of our planet so rightly deserve.

PS: Happy Easter!

Something vs Nothing

Why does something exist, rather than nothing?

The question of existence is a vexing one and lies at the heart of a myriad of other conundrums, such as meaning, destiny and purpose.

 

Taken Under the  Wing  of the Small Magellanic Cloud

 

Despite its seeming simplicity, this conundrum and variations on it, has probably confounded philosophers, theologians and the ordinary person since our species first became able to contemplate its own existence.

While many might otherwise disagree, I am firmly of the opinion that the answers to this question will lie forever beyond our reach and the only “solutions” are speculation. While others may claim to know the “Truth”, the Divine Principle teaches us that we can never have the answers, because we can never be certain of anything beyond our own existence.

The question of existence takes on additional importance, as its answer relates directly to our own existence, meaning and purpose. With the capacity to fear death, and the terror that the thought of our own oblivion produces, we desperately ask ourselves if “this is it”? Is there more beyond this often vicious existence, is there a god and ultimately and perhaps most importantly, do I live on after death?

Despite having been granted this amazing and wonderful gift of sentience, the often world speaks to us of randomness and pain. As we seek meaning, we inevitably wonder if it is all nothing but chance? Will everything that we have ever stood for – our hopes, dreams, fears, goals and desires – amount to naught? Could it be that there is more to existence than meets the eye? Does nihilism inevitably beckon?

Traditionally, religions have sought to answer this problem through the evocation of a variety of creation myths. The most famous of these, of course is that found in The Book of Genesis, which is held sacred by over two-thirds of the world’s population. Despite this, few have ever noticed the bait and switch contained within its opening sentence, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”.

The astute reader will note that this isn’t telling us about the “Beginning”, because if it were it would be telling us about how God came into being. Instead Genesis seeks to answer the much less interesting question of how our particular reality came to be.

In all fairness, this bait and switch isn’t the fault of the original writers, but that of those who followed centuries later and who failed to understand the important context of those immortal opening words. It is doubtful that the writer of Genesis was attempting to explain the basic question of existence as I have expressed it and the very question may have been entirely beyond his conception.

Instead, like many of his contemporaries in the ancient Middle East, he believed that the world had been formed out of a void, chaos or some other pre-existing substance and that his gods had been the ones to bring order and to create the world along with the plants, animals and people within it.

The origin of his god isn’t addressed within the myth and it isn’t hard to understand why. This story most likely originated out of the verbal mythologies told by nomadic herdsmen as they followed their flocks. They were illiterate, and lay at the dawn of the golden ages of thought that have given us greats such as Socrates, Descartes and Kant. What many would regard as the “final version” of their myth, captured so beautifully in the King James Bible lay more than 2,500 years distant.  The writers sought to explain the world around them and their place within it and given the difficulty of even imagining a time when there was “Nothing” it made sense to propose a “void” from which the world as they knew it emerged.

Intriguingly, despite being isolated in their own bubble, through the absence of any knowledge of history, few early cultures seem to have taken the apparently reasonable position that everything was as it always had been and that there was no need for anything to have been created in the first place. The closest that many traditions came to this idea was the concept of Eternal Recurrence, which (according to Wikipedia) “is a concept that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space.”

Perhaps because of our own immersion within our timestream and our almost instinctive desire to imagine causality even when there is none (for example with superstition), the universe having a start made more sense than it not.

Modern science now apparently supports this view, with the Big Bang Theory seeming to point to a definite moment in time when everything began. But the Big Bang can only provide an explanation for how this particular universe exists. In our search for an explanation for existence we still need to ask, “What caused the Big Bang?” Even if this were explained, we would still be left asking ourselves what caused the thing that caused the Big Bang, followed by what caused the thing that caused the thing that caused the thing, ad nauseam, all the way to eternity. Infinite regress seems unavoidable.

The problem is that we are locked within a mind that cannot divorce itself from notions of time and causality. Even if universe’s origins didn’t lie within an inaccessible metaphysical realm, our experience and “common sense” ideas about the world make it difficult to put aside our psychological need for causation.

Existence is the most binary of concepts. Something either exists or it doesn’t. But what do I mean when I talk about “Nothing” or “non-existence”? A state of non-existence is a state which is completely devoid of any information content. Nothing whatsoever exists, including time, space and abstract objects, such as numbers. It is pure and absolute state of Not-Being.

In this state, only does Nothing exist, but non-existence precludes existence; they are mutually exclusive states.

Given a state of non-existence, nothing could ever exist. As Parmenides pointed out so astutely in the fifth century BCE, “nothing comes from nothing”.

It is impossible for something to arise out of the state of nothingness. If it were, this would imply that it the state of non-existence actually contained within it the possibility of something existing. But possibility is in fact itself “something”, if only an information state that recognises potential. Possibility itself describes potential within time, and time does not exist within the non-existent state.

Just as something cannot be birthed by nothingness, so to can something not give way to nothingness. For this to occur would require that the “something” never existed in the first place.

For example, while it is certainly possible that our universe might cease to exist, this cessation of existence is merely how we would perceive an encounter with one of its boundaries in time. Its cessation could never undo the fact of its previous existence and it would remain a fact that our universe had certain properties of existence within a certain space-time.

In order to understand this, we would need to picture our universe as a single unit of spacetime. Because of the nature of our consciousness, we perceive only the present, but once the present becomes past it doesn’t cease to ever have existed. Rather it exists in a place that we cannot access. Similarly, the future can be said to exist, even if the only way that we can access it is to wait for it to manifest itself as the present.

An entity residing outside of our timeline and able to view the universe as a whole, would see its entire history simultaneously from beginning to end, just as I can currently see my whole garden from beginning to end. If we imagine my puppy walking from one side of the garden to the other, we can imagine how a particular sentient experiences time within a particular universe.

Time can be perceived as beginning, just as Saasha starts to walk from one fence. Similarly, time can be perceived as ending, just as she gets to the other side. However, the garden is still there and hasn’t ceased to exist simply because we have arrived at a boundary. Thus, it can be seen that while our perception of universe might cease to exist, the actual universe itself would still exist in a very real sense.

Because something can not arise from nothing, the mutual exclusivity between existence and nonexistence and the very obvious fact that something (ie you the reader) exists, it is clear that something has always existed and done so without cause.

While this is certainly counter intuitive to the point that many will reject it outright, this is only because we inhabit minds that are unable to divorce themselves from the concept of time, and the “common sense” impositions that it places upon us. But the very fact of existence precludes that of non-existence and within this context it no more needs a cause than non-existence would: Existence simply is.

Don’t ask me why.

Existence also exists in its entirety. As time is a state of existence, it cannot be thought of as being a relevant determinant of what exists and what doesn’t. Just as the garden exists even when the puppy isn’t there, so do the past and future also exist, even when we are not “there”. Time is the mechanism by which sentence uses to navigate its way around the universe. But just as we don’t believe that the universe is created and destroyed by our movement through space, so to would it be incorrect for us to imagine that the universe was somehow being created or lost as we move through time.

This is not to say that we live in a completely deterministic universe, where we are fated, or doomed to a particular future. While it is the case that the future exists, there is nothing to suppose that only one future exists. Indeed, I see no reason why an infinite array of possible futures (and pasts) could not exist, with our sentience simply navigating its way through one of a potentially infinite number of possible timelines.

For example, if one imagines Saasha the puppy walking across the garden, she could take any one of a potentially infinite number of routes. Some of these might involve going around the pond, others might involve going through the pond. But whether or not she even interacts with the pond, it still exists as a feature of the garden and as a very real alternative path. Similarly, if we observe her sitting in the middle of the pond (after all, she is a Golden Retriever), we can imagine an infinite number of paths (or pasts) that she could have taken to get there.

The possibility that we inhabit an Infiniverse containing a potentially Infinite range of possibilities, raises the question as to whether there might exist a fundamental “unit” of existence, or if any of the various gods that humanity worships might have had anything to do with it.

With respect to fundamental “units” of existence, I would suggest that we would be looking for something that can exist without seeming to require a universe, or metaphysical foundation for its existence. While many would disagree, it seems to me that the only thing that can fit that particular bill are numbers and mathematics.

The debate as to whether mathematics is discovered, or invented and even whether numbers even exist, is far from being decided. However, it seems to me that mathematical (and by extension, logical) truths are true irrespective of whether there is a universe to contain them or not. Numbers represent certain concepts, independently of language, culture, or anything else. Remove the universe, and the number one will still be the number one and it is an intriguing possibility that it is this numerical independence is the fundamental aspect that both precludes non-existence and forms the foundation from which the rest of our existence “emerged”.

How one gets from numbers and mathematics to a universe as complex, wonderful and amazing as ours is of course pure speculation and far beyond my imagining. How mathematics can produce sentient creatures with apparent free will is even more out of our reach (although it would be delightful if advanced mathematics and computing eventually stumbled upon the mathematical equivalent of free will).

While it could be argued that the all-pervading mathematical elegance that we have discovered within our own universe adds weight to such a theory, this should not be considered the case. Even if it were that mathematics is somehow the basis upon which our universe is built, it does not follow that mathematics should be so easily accessible to our senses and that the underlying algorithm should be so simple that a slightly more intelligent monkey should be able to grasp it.

Within this framework, all creation arises out of sophisticated algorithms made real. Somehow, we are the product of mathematical manipulations beyond our ken. And yes, this way of stating the problem begs the question as to who or what is doing the manipulation, but I would suggest that rather than being a result of “mathematical manipulation” in a strict sense, we are instead an emergent property of the very existence of mathematics itself.

Obviously, speculating that mathematics is the fundamental unit of reality is just that: Speculation. Speculating that we are an emergent property of mathematics is speculation upon speculation. It hardly answers the question definitively and for many it will seem like a dodge designed to avoid getting to the crux of the issue. But given that I’ve already conceded that the very issue of the “how” of existence is entirely out of our understanding, I hope readers will understand my mathematical musings for what they are: Speculation!

The interesting thing with respect to the possibility of mathematics forming the framework of the Infiniverse, is that it by their very nature, numbers are infinite. A universe based on mathematics would contain within it an infinite potential and it is highly likely that existence is in fact “complete”: Everything that is mathematically and logically possible to exist does in fact exist.

Not only this, but a mathematical sentience is potentially an infinite sentience (there will always be another possibility to explore), for which death would be just an illusion.

This takes us back to the first lines of the Genesis myth. As discussed this myth starts with a Divine being that already has existence. It ignores the really interesting question of why is there something, rather than nothing in favour of a more mundane one: How did this particular universe come into being? The reason that this is a more mundane question is that it can be answered in an infinite number of ways, ranging from god, to Hamsters and even pure chance. The answer to the question of how our particular universe came into existence is dependent on the metaphysics from which our universe emerged and just as our puppy could have an infinite number of paths into the pond, so to can we have an infinite number of paths (or metaphysical realities) into our universe.

If nothing can come from nothing, it follows that if God exists, such a being cannot be the source of all existence, because God Himself (or perhaps Herself, given that the feminine aspect of the Divine is most closely tied into the creation of Life), is something that exists. Within this context it is certainly possible that a “God” could exist, but rather than being the creator God of the monotheistic religions, such a being would be an emergent property of existence itself.

At best, He is the sentience which entails all others (as demanded by Omniscience), or perhaps even the Ultimate Sentience of the Infiniverse itself, but He can only be considered an emergent property of “creation”, rather than its point of origin, or source.