Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Metaphysical Humanism and the Laws of Being, part XXIV—The Law of Intention, part I

detail of a capital
Photograph by the author

The Law of Intention

Intention, as the termite biologist Scott Turner puts it, is one of the central questions about why life behaves the way it does:

“… We may be imagining that termite colonies are deliberate simply because we’re human. But…if you deny the intentional behavior, you’re missing biology. The challenge is to come up with a credible theory of intentionality… And you also have to wonder what it's that allowed us to become intentional beings.” 


“If the termites in a mound “know” where their boundaries are, if they understand where they maintain homeostasis and where they don't, then the combination of termites, fungus, microbes and mound constitutes some kind of cognitive system. This cognitive systems has some kind of desire—to stay whole—and, in some way very different than our own, an outlook on life… The thing about living systems is that they have these essential qualities of wanting to do something.” 

Ibid, P. 52.

The explanation for this isn’t actually that complicated, although the implications are. Intent (desire) isn’t, as mechanistic rationalists would have it, an accidental byproduct of emergent behavior. It’s a natural law that acts in conjunction with emergence. And this is exactly why we see it in the social constructs of (supposedly) much more “primitive“ organisms— as well as the collective macro-communities they form with the other organisms they act in concert with. In this example, arthropods, fungi, and microbes—all very different creatures that form a single super-organism partnership.    

 The laws of emergence, intention, and purpose collectively impart meaning through their interaction — and at the same time, they also form what is called agency

Agency is the least understood of all the properties of life, and has so far defied every reasonable attempt at a scientific explanation. Yet agency is, in its summary, what life consists of; and the premise of metaphysical humanism is that agency isn't just an emergent property of life alone, but exists, in fact, as an embedded, active entity—a lawful condition—both at the root of material reality, and the universe we inhabit.   
Furthermore, agency and meaning are deeply intertwined; and although they’re different properties, they’re so closely related to one another that it’s fair to say that without agency, there can be no meaning, and without meaning, no agency. 

They’re reciprocal properties.

Agency is part of what determines meaning; and so when we discuss the law of intention, we can’t do so without acknowledging its dependence on the other partner laws in the triad, emergence and purpose.

The law of emergence, producing ordered systems with hierarchies of complexity as it does, lays the groundwork for intention and purpose. All systems, highly ordered or not, inherently have emergent behaviors and properties. Once those begin to express, intention and purpose follow quite naturally. 
The emergent character of the universe acts as a mediating function between intention and purpose, what Gurdjieff would call third force, the reconciling factor. It binds the two of them together in a perpetual evolutionary relationship.
When we speak of emergence, of course we speak about the more organized properties and behaviors that it produces: this is its nature. The two things that it produces are intention and purpose. 

Intention is an aim: a direction in which things go

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Facade, Amiens Cathedral


They lie under the cathedral floor
One by one, in order of interment 
And drink no water
Nor do they sleep;
The tapping of feet
Above them 
Is more perpetual
Than the blessed silence of the Virgin. 

Into that gray stone sky rise hopes:
Sin reaching towards salvation.
These holy fathers found firm footing
On the backs of their transgressions.
Even piety is dangerous. 
Mind you,
The shrines are mostly empty. 

Nothing stays behind
Except the echoes.

We are listening here
In the cold rain,
For a whisper
Of faces
Turned towards heaven. 


Sunday, January 26, 2020

Metaphysical Humanism and the Laws of Being, part XXIII—Gurdjieff's description of the Law of Emergence

detail of a capital
Photograph by the author

Gurdjieff’s Description of the Law of Emergence

"The point is that when the 'common-cosmic harmonious equilibrium' had been established and regularized in all the cosmoses of different scales, then in each of the tetartocosmoses, that is, those relatively independent 'aggregates of microcosmoses' that had their arising on the surface of the planets—where the surrounding conditions accidentally corresponded to certain data present in these cosmoses, enabling them to exist for a certain period of time without 'seccruano' or, in other words, without 'constant individual tension'— the possibility appeared of independent automatic movement from one place to another on the surface of these planets. 
"Thereupon, when our Common Father Endlessness perceived this automatic movement of theirs, there arose in Him for the first time the divine idea of making use of it as a help for Himself in the administration of the enlarging world. 
"From that time on He began to actualize everything for these tetartocosmoses along such lines that the inevitable 'okrualno,' that is, the periodic repetition in them of the completing process of the sacred Heptaparaparshinokh, could be accomplished in such a way that, under the conditions of a certain kind of change in the functioning of the common presences of some of them, there would be transformed and crystallized, in addition to the crystallizations that had to be transformed for the purpose of the new common-cosmic exchange of substances, also those active elements from which new independent formations could be coated in them with the inherent possibility of acquiring 'individual Reason. ' 
Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, G. I. Gurdjieff, From Chapter 39, The Holy Planet Purgatory.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Gurdjieff on Evil

Detail from the Apocalypse Tapestries at Angers

“what the opposite of good is, even every nonpossessor of hemorrhoids must very easily understand.”

—Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, page 12.

I'm pinch hitting here, because I somehow skipped the entry for this publishing date. As a result we're on fast forward into evil.

The subject of evil has been on my mind lately, not just because I occasionally have theoretical discussions with people about whether good or evil actually exists, but also because of my dream life and the general sense I find in me that we are, collectively, rather unaware of real evil in any practical terms, although it's a common and even banal fixture in the stupidly artificial mythologies of popular culture.

Starting out down this path, I found it expeditious to do a review of how many times the word evil is used in Gurdjieff's Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, and in what context. The word is surprisingly abundant—but it ceases to exist after page 696 of the new addition – it doesn't get another mention throughout the book, even though he uses the expression with great frequency in the first half. Broadly speaking, Gurdjieff classifies two different kinds of evil; one group of evils centers nearly exclusively around things and practices that cause the sane being-mentation of humans to deteriorate, and the second, moral evils of one kind or another. Of the two, the first predominates; and perhaps we should expect that, given that said deterioration is one of the main themes of the book.

Yet there’s little, if any, of the gut-wrenching, deplorable evil that humankind is so addicted to: the wholesale slaughter of one another (to be fair, this gets a mention or two, cleaned up and sterilized into the unconvincingly dispassionate phrase, “process of reciprocal destruction.”) 
Where are the condemnations of the tortures, the rapes, the murders, the wars? The greed, gluttony and selfishness? One wonders. If Belsen and Auschwitz —hideous seeds already planted, but not sprouted yet when the book was written— had already taken place, would events like them (insofar as there might be any, which is another question)  have earned a mention in G's otherwise lengthy annals of purported violation?

In order of introduction, the evils Gurdjieff cites verbatim as evil are as follows:

wiseacreing, self-calming, animal sacrifice, vengeance, opium addiction,  devils, “hasnamussians,” (selfish people), procrastination (the disease of “tomorrow”), Greeks, vodka, art, theater, morality, the wearing of clothing (!), homosexuality and lesbianism, and the idea of good and evil itself.

I may have missed one or two, but this list is I think reasonably complete. 

These seventeen evils sum up the whole of Beelzebub’s litany of same. In the end, the fabric seems to me thin. One suspects Gurdjieff hasn’t sufficiently grappled with the issue here, except in a victorian, moralistic and allegorical manner. The critique of man, in other words, is strikingly incomplete—as it is in its lack of female characters. 

Let’s put it bluntly: if a man thinks the only major evils on the planet center around a range of things this narrow, something is missing. These ”evils” seem very nearly venial. 

Where are the deadly sins? 

The seven deadly sins are all deeply personal sins, transgressions against inner decency. Given the strong emphasis—today, at least— on the quality of inner work, inner quality of Being, the lack of a personal sense of sin or responsibility in the book is striking. Of the above, I count only vengeance, selfishness, and sexual transgressions as personal in nature—a  meagre list, and certainly disputable on the count of sexuality. Are homosexuals and lesbians evil? Really? I don't buy it. I see it as a cheap shot, given Gurdjieff's extensively documented association with the rope. On the other hand, perhaps it's just an intentional provocation for his readers. 

Agreed that Gurdjieff set his priorities differently than other men; and that he wrote a book intentionally different than other books (though not so very different, really.) Agreed that his priority for humanity was the re-acquisition of conscience and consciousness, in that order; but in service to what? For what reason?

One can, I think, plausibly argue that if a human being does not stand for and strive for the good, and oppose the evil, they stand for nothing. Gurdjieff contains enough of this idea—at the very least the seeds of it— in his teaching and writings to argue that he well understood the question. Yet he seems to avoid it, especially the question of those most visceral evils that beset humanity.

Gurdjieff’s failure to discuss the traditionally deadly sins flies in the faith of both Roman and (more tellingly in his own case) Greek orthodoxy. If we have learned anything about Gurdjieff over the years since his death—inevitably, the post mortem and the deep perspective of time have unearthed far more features of his work and ideas than were conceivably visible during his lifetime—it's how surprisingly orthodox his supposedly radical ideas actually were. It was his practice that was unorthodox—not his theology or his mysticism, both of which have ample and fascinating precedent.   

The accusations of moral turpitude that dogged Gurdjieff throughout his lifetime (and have followed him into his historical afterlife) stem at least in part from his oddly aberrant moral relativism: morality, it would seem he maintained, related only to consciousness. 

Yet even here the question is ambiguous: his hasnamuss individuals, especially the cryptic Lentrohamsanin, attain high degrees of conscious development but are still reprehensible… even evil, under the range of definitions Gurdjieff worked within. He does, after all, cite hasnamusses as evil influences... more will be said about them at later date.

The road to a legitimate inner morality flows into Being from a higher source. Yet that inflow of the divine is not, as everyone knows, guaranteed—and without an outer practice of morality, one based at the very least on intelligible principles which one ought to follow, things fall apart. 

One can’t, for example, invoke Gurdjieff’s principle of behaving as if one had moral qualities if no concrete moral form is proposed. 

Further thoughts on the subject of evil, which is still percolating, will be published in late March.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

As If

Detail From The Adoration of the Magi
Hieronymus Bosch
Metropolitan Museum, New York 

As If

It was as if
We were climbing out
Of a great cave
Through mud,
Through clouds of swifts
And swallows

Past travelers and trains,
Past ones who wished
To stay where they were
And keep us there, too

Past blindness
That hid our eyes from ourselves

We climbed
Into the silence
Never reaching it

Although we could hear its sound
From afar.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Metaphysical Humanism and the Laws of Being, part XXII—The Law of Emergence

detail of a capital
Photograph by the author
The Law of Emergence

…those 'aggregates of microcosmoses' that also became concentrated on the planets, this time thanks to the second-order cosmic law called 'mutual attraction of the similar,' were named 'tetartocosmoses.' 
Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, G. I. Gurdjieff, From Chapter 39, The Holy Planet Purgatory.

The Law of Emergence regulates and governs the progressive appearance of higher levels of complexity, or order, from lower level, disordered, simple, states, through aggregation. 

It says:

Chaotic states inevitably produce intermittent aggregating elements of order; and those aggregating elements of order will, as they reach progressively elevated levels of critical mass, produce more complex elements of order that display physical orders, intellectual insights, and emotional behaviors orders of a magnitude well beyond the individual abilities of their constituent elements. 

Gurdjieff’s probable term for this second-order law, which doesn't quite do it justice, was “mutual attraction of the similar.” Readers take note: it's this very high-level, second order law that, exerting its influence  on a much lower level (the level of planets), produces what we call living organisms.

The physical sciences are accustomed to illustrating classic examples of emergent behavior with colonial insects such as termites, ants, and bees, whose collective, relatively simple behaviors produce highly structured social systems that accomplish tasks far beyond the capabilities of individual insects making up the colony. 

These creatures are indeed fascinating; I'm a beekeeper and can attest both to the deceptively simple behavior of single bees and the astonishing feats of hive building, resource collection and distribution that an entire hive so routinely achieves. Yet in assigning emergent behavior to strictly narrow ranges of interpretation—mostly limited to the social behavior of animals—we fail to see the forest for the trees, because all of reality consistently displays emergent properties which are overlooked, simply because they’re so ubiquitous we easily and thoughtlessly take them for granted.

The existence of matter as we know it is an emergent property of quantum states. There’s no reason we know of, really, for quanta to see their superimposed energy states collapse and differentiate into wave or particle operations; yet they do, and the resultant collectives of quanta we call atoms are already emergent properties: they behave in ordered ways that individual quanta don't and can't, in and of themselves and by their nature, predict. 

Molecules are, furthermore, entirely emergent entities that display properties which become increasingly impossible to predict when extrapolating from the behavior of individual atoms. That is to say, one can extrapolate individual behaviors, such as the bonding of nucleotides in DNA; to describe one operation of this kind is relatively simple. But the aggregated nucleotides—although there are only four of them!—engage in collective behaviors that display positively impossible levels of complexity, and they furthermore do so in an ordered and purposeful manner.

This phrase, ordered and purposeful manner, is essential to understanding the Law of Emergence, because of this corollary:

Acquired behaviors displayed by the aggregated elements in an emergent system will tend to become more ordered and purposeful over time.

We see this principle at work around us constantly; it’s evident not just at the microscopic level, where atoms, molecules and quanta rule their own world, or universe, but also at the macroscopic level where solar systems and galaxies are produced. Matter and energy have a natural tendency to order themselves which inherently contradicts the forces of entropy.

This brings us, of course, to life, which in the material world (the coarse world of matter) is the most significant entity produced by the Law of Emergence. Life, from its inception, displays a new emergent property called agency, which operates as a law unto itself. Yet for now let’s just simply think of life as an emergent property of the universe.

Like all other emergent properties, the ability of quanta to ultimately produce life is inherent—it pre-exists as not just a potential, but also inevitable, consequence of the nature of quanta and their collective behaviors. 

Give the fact that life has already demonstrably arisen even one time, as it has, and given the consistency of physical laws and chemistry throughout the cosmos, we can be certain that life, in the course of billions of years and trillions upon trillions upon trillions of planets, has arisen over and over again—in each case dependent on the same molecular interactions that we know today.   

Life is, in other words, as inherent as the other emergent properties in the universe. Following upon life, the ability of organisms (in our own case, human beings) to think as well as feel illustrates inherent universal emergent properties.

Take note: Starting on February 22nd (mark your calendar!) some essays specifically about Gurdjieff's laws—which certainly differ in some ways from my laws of Metaphysical Humanism— will be published. In draft as I write this, they offer a perspective on Gurdjieff's laws as inner, not outer, laws, and discusses some potential meanings consequential to that perspective.

Metaphysical Humanism is in the publishing edit and will be made available in its entirety in the next few months.

As a service to the Gurdjieff community, and in the hope that it will stimulate further discussion and investigations of the laws of Being, I intend to publish this book for free, or as close to free as possible (the paperback edition will inevitably have some publishing costs.)

Donations are, as always, gratefully accepted and will be turned towards funding Gurdjieff-work related publishing projects. 

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A new book on the priory at Serrabone

A new monograph, now available on Amazon.

Neal and I visited this site in 2018. It took over a year to begin to decipher its secrets; and another year to write about them. 

The church at Serrabona in a remote southeastern part of France contains one of the world’s premiere works of romanesque art: a small chapel built within the church featuring an odd amalgam of Christian motifs and beasts from apparently pagan traditions. A mish-mosh, it would appear; yet the religious intention, no matter how obscure, is clear. 

Careful study reveals an initiatory environment of extraordinary subtlety and complexity. The symbolic capitals encode a language of creation, trial, purification and initiation in a processional environment meant to be walked through on one’s way into the church. 

This combination of Christian, Pagan and (in hindsight) Jungian psychological motifs serves as a departure point for exploration of the rich artistic skills and deeply spiritual thoughts of a forgotten era. It serves, as well, as a reminder of our own humanity—a reminder just as relevant today as it was to those who conceived of it nearly a thousand years ago. 

In this interpretation, the sheer genius of the makers comes alive again; in the end, one is left just as astonished by the philosophy that made it as the stone capitals themselves.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Metaphysical Humanism and the Laws of Being, part XXI—What is Thought?

What is Thought?

Before we move on to an examination of the second order of laws, it’s worth considering something that crossed my mind at 5:30 a.m. this morning as I walked out into the marsh in Piermont, NY. 
The sun was still well below the horizon. I was pondering the conditions of inherency and whether or not, as I maintain, it’s possible that the universe (and, by the way, all of reality) has inherent or inalienable properties of intelligence and feeling. 

Why should we think that these properties are accidental, secondary arisings and ephemeral (i.e., meaningless) phenomena not essentially connected to the random, accidental formations produced by the mindless action of unintelligent, unfeeling laws? 
Let’s remember first that physical laws themselves have no actual physical properties. They exist only in human minds, as concepts, which describe the behavior of matter using another human-thought-dependent discipline called mathematics. These concepts could not possibly exist without human minds to think of them; and we know this simply because our conception of them undergoes constant evolution as we understand more about them. There is, in other words, a dependent reciprocity between intelligence and law.

Secondly—and this is what I thought about this morning, which fascinated me—the mind itself, this erratic, incalculably complex set of electrochemical reactions in the form of waves propagating through quanta—is producing thought itself

Somehow, through an impossible-to-understand set of interrelationships [I thought to myself] I am thinking

This thought itself, with its order and meaning—its emergent nature, intentions, and purposes—is a direct result of quantum interactions which are currently taking place. So thought, like all other visible or tangible phenomena, is wholly integrated into the quantum state, and expresses itself as an emergent property. When we think and feel, we may fairly say that the universe thinks and feels—because we are an inextractable part of it. If even a small part of the universe thinks and feels, then the universe does have the property of thinking and feeling, even if it's not expressed at all times and everywhere (so far as we can see, anyway.)
The quantum state, furthermore, precisely contains the potential for thought within itself as a pre-existing condition. The ability to reach such a state is already present in the existence of the quantum state itself—so it's in fact inherent.

As such, the properties of thinking and feeling, and the qualities that they impart, are both implicit and universal. And while thought and feeling, like the laws they perceive, have no visible physical substance to document their existence, they do nonetheless exist. To extend that, consider this: even if we were able to record and describe a set of electromagnetic interactions representing the fact that Debbie loves Richard, nothing about that recording or description of the energies involved would de facto indicate that Debbie loves Richard; yet Debbie does love Richard. It's thought; it's feeling. Those attributes can’t be intuited, imparted or predicted by mechanistic rationalism; but they're accepted as defaults in metaphysical humanism. 

Thought and feeling exist, furthermore, as something much greater than their wave forms propagating through energy fields; they produce order. They display emergent properties and impart meaning (intention and purpose.) 

All of these things thought and feeling do as inevitably and invisibly as the physical laws do; yet they impose these properties, which are just as equally lawful as the physical laws, without touching anything. That is to say, thought and feeling need no physical expression of action to express their existence. And while they may be associated with physical matter, they're not of physical matter; they're rather (like the matter itself) also of wave forms, the movement of energies in relationship.   

This movement of energy in relationship is the sum of it.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Metaphysical Humanism and the Laws of Being, part XX: Agency, or, the Second Order of Laws


Agency, or, The Second Order of Laws

 When the Holy Trinity commences its tripartite action through the agency of its constituent forces, Love, Intellect, and Matter, it produces a subordinate entity that then births material reality. 

These first three laws govern, at the highest level, the entire existence and action of all subsequent levels. 

Once the Holy Trinity exercises its influence, it immediately (i.e., timelessly, in eternity) engenders a realm governed by a second order of laws.

Gurdjieff explained this by saying that the highest level of the universe has three laws; the next level, six; the level that follows that, 12, then 24, then 48 — according to Gurdjieff, we’re on the level of the universe which is subject to 48 laws.

 Leaving this aside for the moment, let’s examine the second order of laws, which are directly consequent on the first order, and in conjunction with them ultimately determine everything that follows in terms of material manifestation. 

The second order of laws, like the first order, doesn't just embody higher laws of the material and material interaction. Like the first order of laws, the second order, which is a material mirror-image of the first order, has three components which, in the created world, materially reflect the metaphysical components of love, intellect, and matter as they pre-exist conceptually in the mind of God.
 The three laws of the second order are as follows:

 The Law of Emergence
 The Law of Intention
 The Law of Purpose

  Once we understand the nature of the universe from this perspective, we understand that the material universe itself, and all of its nature, are governed by these three forces. they're, moreover, hierarchical and proceed one from the other:
  • Collectively, Love, Intellect, and Matter produce Emergence.  
  • Emergence engenders Intention;
  • Intention engenders purpose. 

Although they seem to proceed one from the other in this directed hierarchy, they actually exist — exactly as Love, Intellect, and Matter do — as three points on an equilateral triangle. The Star of David is an apt symbol for this, with the vertical pyramid representing Love, Intellect, and Matter, and the inverted one representing Emergence, Intention, and Purpose. This is the territory where what we call meaning is defined.

 Let’s look at each of the laws in order to get a better understanding of how they function.

May your heart be close to God, 
and God close to your heart.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.