“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

“There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true Self.” William James

“It is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” René Descarte

Ever since Socrates started to question the basis of our ethics and morals philosophers have questioned and questioned until we can only shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to an “I don’t know”. But this comes from assuming one thing; that the basis of our ethics should be explainable. We are faced with resorting to “because I say so” or “because that’s the way it is” and expose our inability to come up with the rhetoric to sustain our argument.

Yes, the post-modernists are right, there is no wrong or right (paradoxically making the post-modernists neither wrong nor right in their rightness), except what we make right or wrong. Any wrong or right we perceive are social constructs. We live in an ethical and existential void, with no inherent values, that we are forced to make sense of ourselves, so some Existentialists would have us believe.

So, just make it up as we go along right, as though we are tabula rasa?

In a postmodern society, where all points of view are relative and equally valid or invalid, it is easy to lose perspective, even of what is innate within us. The infant human being learns to absorb and reflect the qualities of its society. It is no surprise then that a child born in a “postmodern world” would feel tabula rasa, that they could not even trust their own being.

René Descarte came to an interesting conclusion, when he considered the philosophical possibility everything he experienced was the result of a demon tricking him, otherwise known as “the method of doubt”. Out of all the things he could be sure of, what could he really be sure of? In the end he came up with what he called his First Certainty, which most of us will recognise as; “I think, therefore I am” or more simply “I exist”. In the end, Descarte thinks, the one thing that we can depend on is the “self”, the thinker, the “I”, even if everything else can be considered an “illusion”. Unfortunately it was an “I” divorced from physical embodiment, a ghost in a machine, if you like.

At this point a Zen Master may apply a well deserved Zen Slap: “So, that pain you feel on your cheek, is it real or illusory?” Descarte’s thinker may, in the end, conclude that no matter the answer that’s it’s probably worthwhile saying that the pain is real, especially after a few more well applied Zen Slaps. Some pragmatist thinkers, like William James, would think the same; “real pain” versus “illusory pain” seem so indistinguishable as to be a meaningless distinction, you might as well act as if  “illusory pain” is “real” until experience tells you otherwise. If it’s reliable as an experience it’s probably true.

When all society offers us is an existential void, we learn to distrust. We distrust the world around us, we distrust our experience, we may even learn to distrust ourselves. The void has swallowed us.

Exept some experiences are so persistent they cannot be denied out of hand. One of these, as I believe Descarte correctly identified, was the “I” at the centre of thought and experience that I described in Anatta and the Importance of Personhood as:

And yet, there it remains; a strong, persistent sense of self. Despite changing over time, despite interruptions in the flow of consciousness called sleep, there is a strong sense of continuity, that, despite being different ages and with different personal qualities, the “I” ten years ago is the same “I” that is experience by this brain now.

Another is that this sense of self is inextricably attached to a body and therefore the undeniable (whether real or illusory) pain of the Zen Slap. There are some experiences that can be trusted, a rare quality for any person to have!

Going back to Socrates and his continuous questioning (whose philosophical purpose was to “know thyself”, not to nit-pick by the way); we may lose trust in many things, but there are many things we cannot deny, or if we do they hang around like a bad smell. It’s good to question everything, and thoroughly, but it doesn’t pay to live with a feeling that you can’t trust anything. It’s not in human nature to live without meaning… well, I don’t think so. I tried very hard, casting doubt at it from every direction, but this feeling just wouldn’t go away!

At some point the human mind has to find its orientation, and form itself and its world around that orientation. It doesn’t have top be some great big mythological epic, detailing some super-cosmic story that explains EVERYTHING!!! but we do need something, even if it’s thinking about where the next meal comes from.

Following Pragmatist philosophy I think it’s good to trust basic experience and build on that, until experience tells me differently. There is a “me”, no matter how many times I try to fool myself I am “just” a bundle of neurons. I am a physical presense (body) in the “world”, which, incidently, does exist. And there is a a way of telling right from wrong, and it’s called a conscience. I chose to trust these things as far as I may, as far as my experience tells me that they work.

With so much cultural bias and disillusionment it’s easy to see how we learn to distrust in the basic realities of experience, and abstract ourselves from what is right in front of us, what makes our very being; the “I”, conscience, sense, thoughts. We aren’t without some references to go with. And at times they’re not rationally explainable, they just “feel right”.

So, go on, I dare you; trust your Self. You might find it’s worth it.

“People had more than they needed. We had no idea what was precious and what wasn’t. We threw away things people kill each other for now.” Denzel Washington as Eli in The Book of Eil

Why are post-apocalyptic films so resonant? Why do they speak to us as though they are relevant? Is it because they talk about something that will happen?

Or is it because they are talking about something that has happened, and in fact is happening now?

Appearances aren’t what they seem. What Denzel is describing isn’t just something that happens before a apocalypse, something that creates it, it itself is he apocalypse. Instead he is describing an apocalyptic world! The Buddha was right, the action that creates the karma is the karma itself.

Let’s face it, whilst there are lots of nasty happenings in the world can we really believe that everything is right in the wealthier countries? We’re in the midst of an apocalypse right now, but some countries can hide it better than others. But how long can we hide it?

Ok ok ok, maybe saying “apocalypse” may be a bit of an exaggeration. And by that I mean I don’t expect the Four Horsemen to materialize and cause havoc, the anti-Christ to wage war or the Kingdom of God to miraculously descend on Earth after all the bad things have happened. Or that the Earth suddenly stop existing, like it really is the “end of the world”.

But there is something not quite right. And apocalypse seems to be a frighteningly relevant word even if not particularily accurate.

I look at our “wealth” and have a feeling that something isn’t quite right, that it’s all a lot of a show and no substance, that the foundation is all a bit, well, flimsy to say the least. A look at the facts about peak oil shows just how flimsy. We have built a stone castle of cardboard foundations!

What are the essentials for living a fulfilling and healthy life that don’t include “lots of stuff”?

How can we dig down through the foundations of our society and find the bedrock that we really need?

Can we do it before this Great Edifice collapses on us?

And what is it that we really need to build and develop?

One thing’s for sure, some films get you thinking and questioning… and if more people do that we are en route to a better world.

The quote above hints at something, and that is the values we hold, the values that lead us to use or misuse the world around us… and each other.

We build our world by our values. What values are we building with?

“This, in essence, is the hypothesis that Lovelock and his close collaborator Lynn Margulis were to call “Gaia.” The idea significantly modifies the central Darwinian paradigm of modern biology. Competition – natural selection at the species level – becomes much less important than the overall integration of living things within a symbiotic global network. The basic unit of evolutionary survival becomes the biomass as a whole, which may select species for their capacity to enhance the liveability of the planet.” Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth

There can be said to be three interpretations of Gaia; scientific, theistic and philosophical. The science, which I have described briefly, is basically about looking at the Earth physiologically, as a body, and the practical implications of that. But I’m not a scientist, so although I take an interest I can only explain it up to a point. Theistic Gaia is the view that the Earth is sentient, and is literally seen as a single living being. Not something I believe in, but the image is interesting and certainly useful in a poetic sense.

What really interests me is a Gaian-based philosophy. This stands somewhere between science and theism, using scientific ideas and mythological images as a model that we use to view the world and as an ethical guide.

For a while we have had a view of evolution as something competitive and the Earth as an arena in which this biological struggle is played out. Although science is not meant as a tool to give us meaning or ethics, anything that gives us a view of the world, whether myth or science, also gives us a sense of meaning and ethics. Sometimes it is obvious though mostly it is subtle.

The view of competitive evolution has become a tool to legitimise a “dog eat dog” or “every man for himself” attitude. In this view the Earth is a resource and the world is seen as a hierarchy of power where the strongest preys on the weakest. And to some extent this is true, if you see the relationship between some species, and individual organisms of the same species, you will see there is a competitive, even violent, relationship. However, in the same way the classical view of physics breaks down in quantum mechanics, the localised competition of species breaks down in the broader ecological view. Each species fulfills a role in the bigger ecological system; any competition is just one aspect of a cooperative network.

Can the body’s major organs compete with each other? Can the heart win or lose against the lungs? Of course not, they are major organs and are completely and utterly interdependent with one another. However, minor organs or biological features can compete. A species of fish whose ancestors got trapped in a cave system lost their eyes because there was no need for them. The digits and claws of whale ancestors have eventually receded to be replaced by more useful flippers. The long grasping digits on the feet of our tree climbing ancestors have been reduced to small stumps on the end of our feet. But these minor “competitive” adaptations are relative compared to what is going on in the whole body.

We can use this analogy to look at the Earth. It too has major organs, species or certain groups of species that cannot be replaced. For instance, I remember in a biology class being taken out by my teacher with the class and being asked “Can plants live without animals or can animals live without plants?” No one answered plants, and yet that was the answer. Most plants, because they get energy directly from the sun, are self-sufficient, so if the animal kingdom inexplicably disappeared many photosynthesisers would be able to survive. Not so with animals.

There is, what I consider, to be a myth about humanity as the “dominant species”. We might have become very powerful and intelligent but that’s a very superficial dominance. Let’s put it this way, prey do not depend on predators but predators depend on prey, the foundation of a building does not depend on the upper floors but the upper floors depend on the foundation. This echoes a fairly Taoist principle and gives a different spin on Jesus’ “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

We owe our existence to the almost omnipresent microbial lifeforms, like bacteria, that were the first life-forms to exist and surely will be the last ones to exist. When Gaia was young this was, and still is, the basic components, “major organs” or major organisms, that sustain her existence. Without them nothing larger, like humans, could exist.  So it really does turn the concept of dominance on its head. We owe our existence to life-forms that are smaller, simpler and far less intelligent than us, which is humbling really.

We are left with an image that humanity is an interesting but unimportant contribution to the Earth’s evolution. We are left with the principles of respect, humility and cooperation. A good starting point for how we might conceive a Gaia-based philosophy. But this philosophy isn’t just for individuals to choose, as one philosophy amongst so many to pick and choose from; it is the context of all other philosophies. In a sense all organisms are gaian by default. All organisms derive their evolution from a long history where biological traits are developed within an ecological context. To defy this context is to upset the balance and threaten your own existence. Only humans need to make a mental effort to align with gaian-based principles.

This philosophy is something that has to be built into the structure of society itself, a structure that operates with respect, humility and cooperation to the home it depends on for its existence. We cannot go on thinking and acting the way we do, seeing Earth as a resource to be used and abused in service of commercial consumerist philosophy, and other humans and other nations to be viewed as opponents to be beaten in some never-ending economical and fashion-driven race. This cannot work anymore, there needs to be a reform in human civilisation and I think we are waking up to realise it now.

Planted tree

 “A person cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human. To become human, is what this individual person, has been created for.” Martin Buber

“Seek ye divine happiness through the hardships and sorrows of this physical world, and behold spiritual well-being in the struggles of this fleeting existence.” Compilations, Baha’i Scriptures (replace “hardships and sorrows” with “joys and sorrows”, and “struggles” with “experiences”, then you have my version of the quote ;) )

“Lord if I worship You from the fear of Hell, throw me in Hell. If I worship You from the hope of Paradise, deny me admittance to Paradise. But If I worship You out of Love for You alone then do not deny me the Bounty of Your Eternal Beauty” Rabia al-Adawiya  

 

I hate spiritual nihilism. Sounds contradictory but I’ll explain what I mean. “spiritual nihilism” is a negative attitude towards the material world in favour of some abstract, heavenly or spiritual realm. It views the world as a mere waiting room, somewhere where you are just “passing through” or, as I saw recently in one blog, a “sinking ship to be abandoned.” These are dangerous beliefs, because, like unspiritual nihilists, we may fall into the habit of acting in this universe like our actions don’t matter, like we can do “whatever” thinking there are no real consequences to our actions and leave the world in a poor state because we have a greater destiny lying elsewhere, beyond it.

For me, spirituality isn’t about transcending this “realm” of matter, it’s about transforming it; emerging within it, contributing to the cosmic/living/spiritual/evolutionary process and then dissolving back into it, leaving it for future “contributors” or co-creators to take my place in the ongoing process of Creation. I do not need a Great Divine Authority to justify this belief nor some concept of reward or punishment to guide my actions. My ethics stand alone by my own choice, because it’s the “right thing to do” regardless of childish hopes of reward or fears of punishment. Slightly different emphasis than Rabia, but with some parallels.

Children learn from these things; reward, punishment and authority, but when they mature into adults they should (hopefully) be mature enough not to have to lean on these things. Authority is (hopefully, again) transferred from parents to child, so an individual takes responsibility for their own actions in this world by their own individual self-made ethical choice. That can take some humility, to be a building block in the creative process of the universe, instead of using the universe as a spring board into Heaven or some higher incarnation or whatever.

Then I was tagsurfing my way around and found another quoting blog with this…

 “To ‘realize Buddha in this body’ is to realize that you yourself are in fact the universe.  You are not, as parents and teachers are wont to imply, a mere stranger on probation in the scheme of things; you are rather a sort of nerve-ending through which the universe is taking a peek at itself, which is why, deep down inside, almost everyone has a vague sense of eternity.  Few dare admit this because it would amount to believing that you are God, and God in our culture is the cosmic Boss, so that anyone imagining himself to be be God is deemed either blasphemous or insane.  But for Buddhists this is no problem because they do not have this particular idea of God, and so also are not troubled by the notion of sin and everlasting damnation.  Their picture of the universe is not political, not a kingdom ruled by a monarch, but rather an organism in which every part is a ‘doing’ of the whole, so that everything that happens to you is understood as your own karma, or ‘doing.’  Thus when things go wrong you have no one but yourself to blame.  You are not a sinner but a fool, so try another way.” Alan W. Watts, In My Own Way- http://daxdefranco.wordpress.com/2008/08/14/in-my-own-way-41/#comment-166

“You see that pale, blue dot? That’s us. Everything that has ever happened in all of human history, has happened on that pixel. All the triumphs and all the tragedies, all the wars all the famines, all the major advances… it’s our only home. And that is what is at stake, our ability to live on planet Earth, to have a future as a civilization. I believe this is a moral issue, it is your time to cease this issue, it is our time to rise again to secure our future.” Al Gore

This quote sums up Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and not just that, it sums up the present situation on “our only home.” Humans are now going through a major transition, one from local levels to a global level. With the invention of the Internet, with satellites and advances in transportation, this world has become a remarkably smaller place, and with such an easier flow of people, international government and the internet, a global civilisation is beginning to come into being.

But we are also facing some of the biggest challenges we have ever faced, as pointed out in the movie. Contrary to what people thought in the past, the Earth, “our only home,” does not have unlimited resources that we can use as much as we want, and also, the Earth is not somewhere where we can throw our industrial waste without consequence.

The facts and figures in this movie are impressive, they’re not just entertaining special effects or a catchy storylines like in other movies, they have very real and serious implications for how we behave within the confines of Earth. It is, as Al Gore said “a moral issue,” but it isn’t new. Since the 70s, if not longer, science has been telling us to be careful of our planet because it isn’t a system that’ll support us no matter what we do to it. Movements have arisen in response, to be aware of being in balance with nature, but still it hasn’t become mainstream, being supported largely by specialist scientists and movements on the “fringes” of society.

But this is changing. Look at the daily newspaper and you have news about the environment. Look at the internet and you’ll find a HUGE amount of environmental websites. You can even go to a cinema to watch Al Gore telling us about the “Climate Crisis.” These media are the mythology of our age. Mythology is information about the state of the world we are living in and how we view it aswell, in some ways it gives us our morality.

If mainstream society’s mythology changes, then so can the direction that society takes and with the work of people like Al Gore, things look brighter. Environmentalism is becoming more mainstream, more people are aware that we don’t just live in a human world but also an ecological one, one that sustains us, as long as we look after it.

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