“In short, in wondrous ways, these our universe, biosphere, econosphere, and culture are ceaselessly creative and emergent. The two cultures, science and humanities, stand united in this world view. Meaning and value have a scientific base. And ethics? At a recent meeting on science and religion on Star Island, we heard more than one lecture on animal emotions and the sense of fairness in chimpanzees. Group selection, we were told, is now making its way into evolutionary biology. With it, natural selection can get its grip on behaviors that are advantageous to the group, like fairness, so it emerges. Far from evolution being anathema to ethics, evolution is the first source of human morality. But not the last, for we can argue whether we should want what we want.”
- Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart A. Kauffman
In Reinventing the Sacred, Stuart Kauffman describes a scientific worldview that embraces the reality of creative emergence. The universe, biosphere, and human culture are not only emergent but radically creative. As Brian Swimme also puts it ‘if you let hydrogen gas alone for 13 billion years it will become giraffes, roses bushes, and humans’. This is a narrative that not only brings our understanding into greater contact with the scientific discoveries of the last 400 years, but also provides a possible consilience between science and the humanities; between the East and the West. The humanities, according to the late conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, is an area of study that gives students the opportunity to experience that moment when the world, “so to speak, addresses you”. The world is not just a mere accumulation of facts but a recognition, or remembrance, that we are in relationship to those facts. Parts of the East have made the same assertion as the following two-thousand-year-old Sanskrit statement attests ‘Tat tvam asi’ meaning Thou Art That. That, being the full spectrum of all potential and actual biological, physical, and chemical facts throughout the universe.
This is also an insight found in the West especially in Greek antiquity and one that Stephen Blackwood elegantly explores during his lecture on The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Blackwood takes us on a journey through the beautiful work of Boethius written in 6th Century AD while imprisoned under the new Ostrogothic King, Theodoric the Great. It tells a story of self-discovery in the face of misery and misfortune and how in, and through, great difficulties, there is an opportunity to remember that which is in us is also in some respect the nature of that which is outside of us. In some Eastern contemplative schools this realization is referred to as non-duality because ideas such as inside and outside become obsolete. As Blackwood explains, this process of recollection, of cultural and individual renovation expressed so vividly by Boethius, owes much of its debt to similar narratives brought forth by the Greeks. That the harmony and creative forces outside of the self – like the Fibonacci sequence, the titanic explosion of a dwarf star, or geometric shapes like the hexagonal honeycomb, can also be discovered within. In the text itself Boethius creates a unique dialogue between himself and an imaginary entity named Lady Philosophy, who with the use of reason and logic, admonishes him for the psychological misery he has allowed himself to fall into.
“When I saw you weeping in your grief I knew at once that you were wretchedly banished; but how remote was that banishment I should not have known if your speech had not told me. But how far from your homeland have you strayed! Strayed, not driven, I say; or if you prefer to be thought of as driven, then how far have you driven yourself!”
What a magisterial admonishment this is and how awfully relevant to the times we now find ourselves in during a global pandemic. Such unprecedented social and economic change. Such unstoppable tragedy. With social isolation upon us we are now forced into a similar situation like that of Boethius; isolated, fearful, and facing the possibility of our individual and collective mortality. Of course, some of us are far more fortunate than others but as the story of The Consolation of Philosophy reminds us, fortune should never be a source of wellbeing. Fortune, or lady fortuna, as the Romans referred to her, has never ceased spinning her wheel. She always has been, and always will be, predicably unpredictable. The stoic medicine given to Boethius by lady Philosophy to cure this sickness, somewhat analogous to the Buddhist claims regarding dukkha (or dis-ease/suffering), is that not despite the anxiety and oppositions we often feel internally, but in and through them, we begin to realize our wilful blindness to the unity and inherent difficulty of life itself. An understanding of how the parts relate to the whole.
“Ants brilliantly self-organized to evolve remarkably robust and hugely successful and sophisticated physical and social structures, but it took them millions of years to do so. Furthermore, they accomplished this more than 50 million years ago and have barely evolved beyond it since.”
The question today is how well have modern scientific discoveries been conveyed? With only one-third of Americans believing in an unguided form of evolution, little awareness of Einstein’s fusion of space and time or discoveries of bacteria communication such as quorum sensing, there is clearly much work to be done. Meanwhile, a purely materialistic world view is just as divorced from reality as a consciously guided-one. The story that will unite scientific discoveries into a less reductive and more emergent world view could put our culture back in touch with the sacred dimension. Instead of returning to the books as Jordan Peterson insists, we might be better off seeing that Eastern insights into the power of concentration, popularly referred to as mindfulness, align well with the empirical reality as we now know it. The Buddha was the world’s first Evolutionary Psychologist.
“The Buddha saw that pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied. And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of sexual reproduction. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.”
― Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation
In terms of a self-ordering principle and our connection to it, this is not the abstract philosophizing one often encounters in the upper echelons of the academy. It does not infect the mind with ideas of abandoning objective reality, reason, and logic, like the thinking that has become so popular throughout the humanities over the last forty years. Humane and practical wisdom is a cosmic year away from modern contagions. The late American literary critic Harold Bloom referred to these cultural viruses as ‘the schools of resentment’, an attitude that can only ever bring spirits and relationships down, not raise them up. Contrast this with the common-sense approach of Roman statesman and philosopher, Seneca, ‘the whole future lies in uncertainty, live immediately’. and ‘There are more things that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.’ This stoical advice is the same flavour found throughout the Zen tradition, which frames the situation far more resolutely, ‘the great matter of life and death’. In other words, the undeniable and painful fact of impermanence that must be faced, and the inherent potential we all possess to accomplish this task. This fact, and potential realization, remains permanently 'under our feet' according to Zen. It is often said that we all become Buddhists on our death bed; that last moment any constructed notions of self are extinguished whether we like it or not, better to drop them now, they say.
To pick up on Suzanne’ Moore’s recent article in the Guardian ‘They can lock me down, but they can’t make me read Proust’.
“Yes, now apparently is the time to learn a new language. Sure, I did Mandarin last week. Or there is calligraphy, as Stephen Fry suggested. Or you can clean. Whoopee! Or rearrange your book cases. Who are these people? I have never arranged my bookcase in my life, or got up early to sit at a desk. Why, as the world collapses, am I meant to do this now?”
Well put. Now is not the time to lecture people on what they should and shouldn’t be doing with their time in isolation. Some have just lost their jobs while others find it hard enough dealing with family dynamics they spent years avoiding. Reflection emerges according to its own schedule as does the creativity and self-organizing principles we find in the cosmos; it cannot be forced and conversely cannot be avoided. As every individual, family, community, and country are now made to contend with this unprecedented situation and as the economic speed, progress and endless growth come grinding to a halt, the challenges and hardships will only accelerate. The best we can do now is take this opportunity to support friends, family and neighbors (over the fence), perhaps even re-connect and say those unsaid things, and out of the ashes find new ways to rebuild and regenerate as both individuals and societies.
What emerges after this crisis and what is remembered will be of paramount importance when it comes to rebuilding our lives and economies. We could of course take physicist Alan Lightman’s advice and rethink economic activity in light of this slowed and contemplative pace of life. Instead of rushing toward the next bonus or pay-rise without stopping to smell the roses or appreciating loved ones, we may find new norms that take well-being into account. Instead of crude quantitative measures of the how and when, perhaps new output metrics will be based on what we produce. Will co-founder of WordPress Matt Mullenweg's long-time advocacy of the distributed workforce finally come to fruition? A vision that creates modern and mobile organizations that abandon industrial-era concepts of centralized offices with the clock-in and clock-out, and replaces that model with more flexible, more creative, and more inclusive work from anywhere (WfA). For many companies, the recent rapid transformation born out of necessity, shall likely become permanent.
What about the ecological, environmental, political, and structural arrangements? The conservative impulse to conserve, especially the environment and our health, may become the remembered priority for governments and individuals. Gratitude for institutions that protect us might re-emerge after the complacency and comfort of our previous lives were called into question. If this core-virtue of conservative politics is vividly remembered, then it might consider discarding its intractable commitment to unfettered free markets. As conservative governments around the world scramble to save the economy and pour trillions into BI (basic income), healthcare, and social support, can we really consider a return to more selfish and ignorant times? Likewise, the subset of irrational progressives that abandoned a moral compass in the name of critical theory, may well remember how to self-reflect and critically think, lest they remain permanently sequacious. It might even become apparent that out-sourcing national production, uncontestable large-scale migration, or pandering to brutal regimes that turn a blind eye to dangerous wet-markets, is not a good way for a party, nor its fellow constituents, to realize its full moral and political potential.
In the Greek epic Odyssey, Odysseus's disbelief in his own natural limitations was the source of his undoing. Will this intractable virus remind us of our own limitations? As journalist Andrew Sullivan describes the battle, ‘we are merely negotiating the terms of our surrender to reality. And there is nothing more humbling for humans than that.’ If the scientific emergence story can be well articulated and capture the imagination on a universal scale, then what can be remembered and what will emerge over the next year, decade, or even millennia may well set the stage for the next chapter of humanity.