Monday, February 3, 2014

Known and unknown forces

 In the last post, I pointed out that the questions in it required deeper treatment, and I thought I would address that a bit this morning.

Yesterday, I mentioned that everything that takes place and emerges from the intersection of unknown forces; yet I suspect that some readers will take objection to that. Forces, after all, can be and are known; there is an entire branch of scientific study called physics which deals with it. Its attendant stepchild, chemistry, details what happens when physics has its various ways with the energies it manipulates.

It's true that we “know” what these forces are; that is, we have made up a wide range of words and laws to describe them, and created physical instruments that can measure them. Yet any physicist would tell you that the forces we manipulate are, as yet, still not fully explained; physics is still struggling for an explanation of dark matter, dark energy, and why gravity exists. In summary, the forces that we study in our sciences are still fundamentally not understood, even though we claim an understanding of sorts. It's as though we could translate specific individual words of a language, without knowing any of the grammar, sentence structure, or how the words in it get strung together to impart intelligible greater meanings.

 Science has a peculiar way of understanding a little bit and triumphantly deciding that it understands a lot; this kind of hubris has dogged the enterprise for as long as there have been scientists to engage in it. It is, in other words, as much a function of human ego as any other discipline, cry though they may, those studious scientists, that it isn't. It is, in other words, completely subject to all the same foibles everything else in life is. Only abject denial can lead one to conclude otherwise.

So we stand at the intersection of known and unknown forces, and the vast majority of forces at this intersection are unknown; they always will be. The sum total of knowledge mankind might acquire is always infinitely in excess of the ability of individuals, cultures, and kingdoms to acquire it. In addition, the infinite number of interactions between quantum states, which give rise to what we call physical reality, absolutely and forever defy the ability of any predictive mechanism to lead us to solid conclusions.

Studying ancient schools of philosophy, we see that the questions this raises have been with mankind for thousands of years. One of the solutions of the philosophical schools was to declare that there are no solutions; examining dualistic thinking and what is called the law of the excluded middle, both Eastern and Western philosophers in some schools reached the conclusion ( probably through some collusion, see The Shape of Ancient Thought, chapter 17, Pyrrhonism and Mādhyamika) that there can be no resolution, that no opinions are valid, and that one can never assert either this or that. As such, in multiple iterations, the schools declared that everything that arises is an illusion, in so far as it cannot actually be defined, either from within itself or using external means. 

Admittedly, the arguments are complex; but a reader who digest the entire chapter cited above will gain some appreciation of the elegance with which ancient philosophers dissected this question. No one has yet managed to exceed their efforts; in fact, we still struggle with the same questions today, and in much the same way.

The two glaring weaknesses of this school of thought are seemingly self-evident: in the first place, everything is not an illusion; when you hit your thumb hard with a hammer, it's quite difficult to use metaphysics to explain that the pain doesn't exist.  (Eckhart deals with this quite nicely in Sermon #9: "Therefore I declare that no saint everyone will ever attain to the state where pain will not hurt him, nor pleasure please"—The complete Mystical works, page 88.)

Secondly, the schools were from the very first moment engaged in the contradictory activity of asserting the opinion that there can be no opinions. It was, and remains, a self—reflexive argument that can never be proven valid because of its inherent circularity. It does have the benefit of serving well as a weapon to deny what anyone else says; but this weapon is a very dangerous one, as gurus throughout history have proved. Claiming that one is enlightened and using it as a justification for any behavior whatsoever, while denouncing critics by telling them that they "don't understand" because they aren't enlightened, is one of the chief features of a long list of abusive, charismatic cult leaders.

All of these arguments ultimately center around the tension between predictability and unpredictability; and these are essential needs for the organism, because in any biological system, an organism's ability to predict becomes perhaps the most important feature in its efforts to survive and reproduce. This is a strictly physical matter when it comes to cells and organisms; but apparently the same need expresses itself in psychology and even in the spirit itself. This raises many questions, because there might, on the surface of things, seem to be absolutely no need whatsoever for the intelligence to be able to predict; yet it does. Intelligence, as a force, thus turns out to be an emergent property that displays exactly the same characteristics that the biological systems do; a need to predict. All of this is deeply rooted in a quest for survival. In an oblique yet real way, in other words, our quest for knowledge in the sciences is connected to and arises from our cellular wish to survive; for some greater wish for survival that is expressed by the very nature of materiality itself. 

The action of life, after all, is the effort of material structures to create a durability entropy denies them; and this is patently unnecessary.

We can conclude from all this that man's spiritual search, with  all its attendant questions and mysteries, springs from the same roots and has the same aim. Both science and spirituality attempt to codify known and unknown forces; science suspends judgment on assignment of meaning, sometimes asserting (like the Pyrronhists) that there is none, whereas spirituality begins with the assumption that meaning is inherent. 

The apparently contradictory positions seem peculiar, because in its own way, science also assumes that meaning is inherent— it just takes the place that is mindless, whereas, in spirituality, it is mindful. Yet science uses that which is mindful—science itself—to assign mindlessness. Spirituality, on the other hand, begins with the assumption of mindfulness and then suggests that we must go beyond that into some unknown territory.

Both disciplines are equally vital and valid, but to me, of the two, spirituality certainly seems to offer less contradictions and occupy the higher ground.


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