LIFE AND DEATH

“The goal of all life is death.” – Sigmund Freud.

Before we can talk of what happens after death we must understand exactly what life is, or perhaps what it means to be alive. Webster’s dictionary’s first definition of the word ‘life’ is:

“the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifest by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally.”1

The German biologist and philosopher, Bernhard Rensch begins his defining of life by pointing out that the distinction between the animate and the inanimate is not easy, as most distinguishing characteristics are shared by both groups. After an extended introduction, he concludes that living things have about a dozen major characteristics, one of which is temporary constancy, by which he appears to mean temporal continuity.2

On the other hand, the Webster dictionary defines ‘death’ as “the total and permanent cessation of all vital functions of an organism.”3

The philosophical implications of our definitions are self-evident.  First there are the two corollary principles: life requires continuity and death is permanent. Thus, by definition, there can be no life after death – it is logically impossible. Either the living being never died which meets the criterion of continuity or it is dead, which is irreversible.

Second, traditional conceptions of soul do not represent life as defined above, and therefore the soul cannot be the basis of eternal life. The consequence is that when most traditions speak of ‘immortality,’ they are not referring to unending life in the biological sense. It turns out there is ‘immortal’ life on planet earth, i.e. in the form of unicellular organism which multiply be asexual means, so that the original organism continues and in theory can continue to live indefinitely. However the price of multicellularity for humans is sexual reproduction and the inevitable death of the parental organism.

In addition to the epistemological proofs above, we have the experience of humanity – all human beings die, and none is later found living (we will discuss contradictions raised in the Bible in later posts). The only coherent conclusion is that human life is not eternal on either a logical or empirical basis. The concept of human immortality defined as eternal biological life can be discarded.

1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 1110.

2Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-231-03299-X, pages 35-66.

3Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 513.

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RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD – PART III

“[In the highest degree of contemplation] the Soul not only becomes happy by the gift of philosophy, but since, so to speak, it becomes God, it becomes happiness itself.” – Marsilio Ficino

Beyond common prayer and incidental spiritual experience is the highest level of relationship to God or ultimate reality through meditation and contemplation. These forms of mystical undertaking are one of the reasons some believe in God, but are also methods proposed by great spiritualists to connect with the divine.

Meditation is the term used in Eastern philosophy for the process of “concentrating to the utmost degree our latent mental power… training the mind, especially attention and the will, so that we can set forth from the surface level of consciousness and journey into the very depths.” Therein we discover that we are not the body or the mind, and find through a “transcendental mode of knowing.” that we are a consciousness with an unbounded connection to the universe.1 For Hindus and Buddhists, the goal is enlightenment and Moksha or release from the cycle of reincarnation (samsara). However this form of meditation is not aimed specifically at interacting with God.

For Christians and other religions, meditation can progress to contemplation.  Thomas Merton, a twentieth century Trappist monk,  defines it as “the union of our mind and will with God in an act of pure love that brings us into obscure contact with Him as He really is.”It is  “an awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life.”3

Preliminary steps according to Merton are self-discipline and asceticism, detachment from exterior matters and goods, escape from the ‘false self,’ humility, and selfless love for others. The process is one of multiple steps including solitude, silence, emptying of the mind, and prayer for your own discovery. There is a darkness, unknowing, or wilderness before the light of God’s infusion. A spiritual guide may help one avoid the many pitfalls and confusion that results during the ascent.

Paul Tillich is perhaps less mystical when he refers to “contemplating the mystery of the divine ground, considering the infinity of the divine life, intuiting the marvel of the divine creativity, adoring the inexhaustible meaning of the divine self-manifestation – all these experiences are related to God without involving an explicit ego-thou relation.”4

You may wonder whether a philosophy site should discuss a specific religious act like contemplation of the divine which defies scientific or philosophical validation. My justification is the vital place of meditation and contemplation in the history of philosophy. Virtually every Eastern tradition identifies meditation as the means to peace, enlightenment or nirvana. The contemplative life is Aristotle’s ideal of eudaimonia, that is, human flourishing. Pythagoras, Plotinus, Spinoza, and other Western philosophers seem to practice a form of meditation, and the great works of Marcus Aurelius and Descartes are known as Meditations. Christian philosophers like St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, and Merton, and Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila, experienced an indescribable union with the divine. Sufis, such as Mawlana Jalal-al Din Rumi, also describe such a union as breathtaking and life-changing. This supreme of human experiences, if real, must be a consideration in any program of a meaningful life, at least for those who believe in God.

 1Easwaran, Eknath, Meditation.Nilgiri Press, 1991. ISBN 0-915132-66-4, pgs. 8-28.

2Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8112-1724-8, pg. 214.

3Ibid. pg. 4.

4Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol 1 pg. 289.

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RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD – PART II

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” – Immanuel Kant,

Spiritual experiences (also called ‘peak experiences’) are another putative interaction with the God and the religious. A spiritual experience is an intense feeling of being uplifted, moved, or inspired often by a calm appreciation of beauty, nature, ideas, or the divine. About one third of the population admits to such experiences which typically include awareness of something larger than oneself, oneness, connection, awe, bliss, love, peace, or insight. Researchers have identified positive impacts from spiritual experiences that can be life changing and give a sense of meaning and purpose.1

These experiences are traditionally elicited by sacred places such as churches, holy relics, or absorption in natural beauty. One has an unmediated and impartial apprehension like that of a young child, but more intense. One is left speechless, and time seems to stand still. Religious experts claim they are facilitated in those who make themselves loving, pure in heart, humble, detached, and connect to the interior self.

If you have ever traveled to a peak in the Rockies, scuba-dived in the Caribbean, peered at the Milky Way in an unlit rural area, sat alone quietly in a large Gothic Church, listened intently to a truly beautiful piece of music, or beheld one of many similar sensations, you likely know the speechless wonder and transcendence that results. From personal experience, I can only say it is difficult to explain, but it feels like a fusing of reality, self, and time into a unit and a meaning which is unforgettable.

And spiritual experience is not antithetical to science – consider the following from Albert Einstein:

“…whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances in this domain [science], is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur or reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word. And so it seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understating of life.”5

Therefore even in the absence of religion or church participation, we can increase our spirituality and spiritual experiences through communion with nature, study of the universe, reflection on existence, detachment from our everyday concerns, and opening a door to our inner self through love, humility, and virtue. Unexpected benefits of discovered meaning and purpose may follow.

1Henry, Jane, Quieting the Mind and Low Arousal Routes to Happiness in The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, edited by Susan David, Ilona Boniwell, and Amanda Conley Ayers. Oxford University Press, 2015. Chapter 32; pages 411-421.

2Einstein, Albert, Out of My Later Years. Philosophical Library, New York, 1950, page 29.

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RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD – PART I

“In rational prayer, the soul may be said to accomplish three things important to its welfare: it withdraws within itself, it accommodates itself to destiny, and it grows like the ideal which it conceives.” – Santayana, Life of Reason

Should you conclude there is sufficient evidence or reason for belief in God and that He is a personal deity, you will next likely decide whether to practice an established religion. Either way there will be a critical subsequent step – relationship to or experience of the divine. There are three basic methods of this interaction – prayer, spiritual experience, and meditation or contemplation.

Prayer is of course direct conversation with or appeal to the divine. This can take the form of thankfulness, reverence (worship), remorse (seeking forgiveness), or intercession (help for oneself or another). According to Aquinas, Socrates thought we should pray only for ‘good things’ as God knows best what is good for us (Aquinas’ source is Valerius Maximus). But Aquinas thinks “our motive in praying is not that we may change the divine disposition, but that, by our prayers, we may obtain what God has appointed.,” He also says, “prayer …directs man’s intellect to God,” while inspiring us with holy desires;, and praying for our salvation conforms our will to God’s will.1

Paul Tillich expresses a more existential meaning of prayer as a self-transcendence which serves to “reunite the creature with its creative ground” and is “an actualization or our ultimate concern.”  But like Aquinas, he denies that in prayer, one expects God to interfere with existential conditions, rather one hopes to direct the given situation toward fulfilment. The faith the person has in God is the power which transforms the existential situation.2

Meister Eckhart expresses this more ethereally, “Not for the first time tomorrow will God grant thy supplication and thy prayer: he has granted it already in his eternity ere ever thou becamest man. Suppose they prayer is foolish or lacking in earnestness, God will deny it thee not then, he has denied it thee already in his eternity.”3

If you have ever been in a crisis, particularly one which threatens your life or that of a loved one, you probably appealed to the divine to intervene. In a sense, this can be interpreted as an instinctual ‘belief’ in God – i.e. by default in circumstance of helplessness. It may be worth mentioning that clinical studies of intercessory prayer for the sick give mostly negative results, although a 2009 review article of ten studies on 7446 patients concluded the evidence did not support a recommendation for or against prayer for aiding the sick.4

Non-crisis prayer however requires more conscience belief and is experienced as calming and rewarding in itself to its practitioners. It can lead to a spiritual experience – the topic of the next section.

 

1Brody, Baruch A. Readings in the Philosophy of Religion. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1974. ISBN 0-13-759340-6, pages. 546-547.

2Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology, The University of Chicago Press, 1967. ISBN 0-226-80336-8. Volume 1 p. 267.

3Perry, Whiteall N., A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom. Fons Vitae Edition, 2000. ISBN 1-887752-33-1, p.524.

4Roberts, Leanne, et. al. Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill  health. 2009. https://www.cochranelibrary.com

 

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CURRENT READING – BEFORE THE BIG BANG (cont’d)

Sternglass, a physicist, takes a different approach in this book. He develops Georges LeMaitre’s original theory of the ‘primeval atom’ as an extremely heavy and rapidly rotating electron-positron pair within which the mass of the universe is contained by virtue of its energy (think E=mc2). The origin of the this pair is hypothesized as coming from a ‘vortex ring’ or superstring that vibrates so violently that it pinches itself in half with the two ends rotating at 180 degrees relative to each other creating the first pair of charges.

Subsequently 270 divisions of this original pair over about 15 trillion years led to the Big Bang and the mass and structure of the universe with all parts still rotating and including some ‘seed pairs’ – clusters of more massive electron-proton pairs that divided later to become galaxies and stars.

One advantage of the theory is its explanation of the stability of the universe as the balance of the centrifugal force of the rotating universe (Einstein’s “cosmologic constant”) to the gravitational attraction of its parts. It also relies on simpler factors than the standard theory – just the mass and charge of the electron, the speed of light, and Planck’s constant. It may also explain Guth’s inflation, quasars, continued star formation, dark matter, and the relative small size of distant galaxies detected by the Hubble telescope.

However Sternglass’ theory has not been readily accepted by cosmologists who see it as inconsistent with the body of astronomical knowledge. It counters the prevailing opinion that the universe began as a singularity. It depends on the vortex occurring with an ether like one proposed by the ancient Greeks, but dismissed by modern science. There is little evidence the universe is actually rotating. And it does not predict the more recently identified Higgs particle as foreseen with the standard model.4

It is not the purpose of this post to attempt to resolve the issue of what preceded the Big Bang, rather to reconcile scientific thinking with the concept of a divine creator. Perhaps not surprisingly Flam does not use the word God in her article, but God as creator appears five times in Sternglass’ book. Once when speaking of Robert Millikan who tried to reconcile science and religion by saying matter is still being formed as evidence that “The Creator is still on the job.” A second when referring to rotation as having meaning only relative to a pre-existing ether that Isaac Newton regarded as ‘the body of God.’ The third appears when he is thinking about the specificity of Newton’s gravitational constant as unlikely to have come about by chance and the design of the universe as both elegant and understandable by humans – mentioning Albert Einstein’s famous quotes: “I cannot believe God plays with dice with the universe,” and “God is clever, but he is not malicious.”

The other two times he alludes to God are in the first and last chapters when he tries to come to terms with his own theory. His closing paragraph starts, “The architect of this design and the energy required to bring this about remain a source of mystery, awe, and wonder beyond the ken of science.” He gives the philosopher and the scientist a lot to contemplate.

1 Sternglass, Ernest J., Before the Big Bang. Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, 1997. ISBN 1-56858-087-8.

2Hoyle, Fred, The Nature of the Universe.  Harper & Brothers, New York, 1950, p. 124. Fred Hoyle argued in the 1940s for a cosmology based on the Steady State theory in a series of BBC radio broadcasts in which he gave the moniker “Big Bang” to the competing theory held by Georges Lemaitre.

3Flam, Faye, Sky and Telescope. F+W Media. Volume 137, No. 2, pages 16-21.

4 www.news.pitt.edu/news/pitt-scientists-unified-theory-origin

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CURRENT READING – BEFORE THE BIG BANG

February 22, 2018

Before The Big Bang by Ernest J. Sternglass1

 

“Continuous creation…can be represented by precise mathematical equations whose consequences can be worked out and compared with observation. On philosophical grounds I cannot see any good reason for preferring the big bang idea. Indeed it seems to me in the philosophical sense to be a distinctly unsatisfactory notion, since it puts the basic assumption out of sight where can never be challenged by a direct appeal to observation.”2 – Fred Hoyle.

While meeting up with my daughter in Fairfield, IL (population 5029), I went to the local library and purchased this book almost in passing. I had not opened it until I noticed the February 2019 issue of Sky and Telescope with the cover line, “What came before the Big Bang?” I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to think through scientific thoughts on the origin of the universe.

In the Sky and Telescope article by Faye Flam, she notes that traditionally it was thought impossible to determine the origin of the Big Bang. But now cosmologists posit that it occurred in existing space, another universe, or a multiverse. Specific proposals on the setting of the Big Bang include:

1)  a sea of rapidly expanding space,

2) a bland expanse of empty space,

3) a comeback of a contracting universe (Big Bounce), or

4) a collision of two existing universes in a higher-dimensional space.

Many cosmologists accept Alan Guth’s theory of inflation whereby shortly after the Big Bang, the universe expanded extremely fast and extremely briefly due to a peculiar and perhaps inexplicable repulsive force. But increasingly cosmologists consider the possibility that inflation preceded the Big Bang. Some cosmologists, for example Andrei Linde, see patches of inflating space emerging from an existing chaotic universe creating a ‘pocket universe.’

Meanwhile two other theories are developing. First the bouncing universe of Paul Steinhardt offers a solution without the inexplicable inflation or need for a multiverse. Another is Sean Carroll’s theory that empty space at the highest level of entropy (disorder) contains formless ‘vacuum energy’ which can generate an occasional baby universe based on the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.

Of course untestable speculations of this type border on metaphysics rather than science though Flam concludes by discussing some recent attempts to sort through these possibilities using observable data.

(continued next post)

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GOOD VS. EVIL – PART III

In the last two blogs we discussed the mythological conflict of Good vs. Evil as a paradigm of the human conception of the universe especially as expounded by Zarathustra and reinterpreted by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Professor Francis Ambrosio in his course Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Lifelooks more closely at the position of humanity in this arena and proposes two timeless means to personal meaning: the role of the saint and the role of the hero. In that context he sees Nietzsche as a tragic hero, who self-identifies as the antichrist, but is in fact a misunderstood and unappreciated proponent of secular humanism, proposing “the ideal, not of oppressive domination of others, but rather of mastery over the self.”

So where does all of this leave modern man in defining his place in this mythic conflict? The answer recurs throughout literature whether sacred or historical:

One who does good is never overcome by evil.”  Bhagavad Gita, 6:40.

“Do evil to no man; work for the common good.” –  Cicero

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – St. Paul, Romans 12:21.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke, 18th century British politician and supporter of the colonies.

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” – Albert Einstein

These varied sources tell us the best way to defeat evil and perhaps more importantly to separate oneself from evil is to be a force for good. So returning to Frankena’s principles in the chapter on societal ethics; if our primary obligation is first not to commit evil actions and next to try to reduce evil, and our secondary obligation is to promote good, human history suggests commitment to doing good is the means to both defeat evil and transcend it.

Nietzsche shows us that self-mastery, rigorous analysis of ethical norms, and acceptance of and participation in the real world are necessary to success. Professor Ambrosio refines the human struggle; to defeat Evil and promote Good is done through the selfless courage of the hero and the personal sacrifice of the saint. I think Zarathustra and Nietzsche would agree that they are the uberman.

1Ambrosio, Francis J., Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. 2009, The Great Courses.

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CLASSIFYING GOODS AND EVILS (CONTINUED)

In the last blog we discussed classifying goods and evils referring to Table 2 in the Appendix. We discussed the difference between  intrinsic and instrumental goods. A second distinction between goods is the location where they originate. An internal good is situated within the individual and cannot generally be directly shared with others, though this type of good can lead to good for others. Health for example cannot be directly shared, but healthy individuals can help the sick or disabled. An external good is outside the individual and relies on or is shared by others. Friendship and justice are obvious examples. Some goods, such as peace can be both, in which case I categorized them by the location that seems to me more essential to the individual.

Of course all goods are not equal with respect to desirable intensity. For instance, some goods are such that we can never have enough or too much of them. It seems illogical to say one has too much purpose, functional capacity, or creativity. Therefore these rate a 5 on a scale of 5 in the desired intensity column on the chart. Other goods are optimal in moderation and of diminishing value when excessive. Food is an obvious example; too much leads to obesity and lesser health. A classical example is courage where Aristotle sees moderation as ideal; too much courage being foolhardiness; too little cowardice.

The reader may have different thoughts on these ratings and categories, any of which I am happy to discuss and even modify. However it may be advantageous to create your own version of this chart, perhaps even with your own concepts of goods and evils for your contemplation.

You may also notice some items missing such as fame or power. I left these off because they seem to be of uncertain value or are not universally recognized as good or evil. The reader may prefer to add these and others to his own list. The other missing element in Table 2  is a ranking of goods. That question is addressed in our next blog.

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CLASSIFYING GOODS AND EVILS

“Good is all that serves life, evil is all that serves death. Good is reverence for life…and all that enhances life. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it to pieces.” – Erich Fromm

 

To further define the concepts of good and evil, it is helpful to identify the various goods and evils we detect around us. In general philosophers do not list more than a sample of goods and evils, so I have created a fairly comprehensive table of goods and evils from reading and personal reflection. (See Table 2 in the Appendix).  For many of these, a different name or manifestation might be chosen, but for the most part the reader should be able to trace a given good to one listed.  I also listed the corresponding evil – essentially the opposite of the good listed although there is some variation in this, for example for the good, security, the related evil is fear (i.e. worry about one’s safety).

Traditionally philosophers divide ‘good’ into two types. First is intrinsic which is good in itself rather than as a means to some higher good. Happiness is the most noteworthy example; we do not usually think of achieving happiness for some other reason, rather because we think it is desirable in itself. Alternatively an instrumental good is not good in itself, but by virtue of the good that can derive from it. Wealth is an example; good only as a means to comfort, happiness, or charity. In Table 2, I have tried to categorize the listed goods by which type they fit.

(to be continued in the next post)

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GOOD AND EVIL

“Good then if we mean by it that quality which we assert to belong to a thing, when we say that the thing is good, is incapable of any definition…” – G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica.

The crux of reality and life for sapient beings revolves around the concepts of Good and Evil. For instance one may question whether the universe is mostly good, mostly evil, or neither. Individual actions are considered ethical if ‘good’ and immoral if ‘evil.’ Therefore the next step is to think through these two words and the relationship between them.

Like we found with the word ‘reality,’ philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedias tend to avoid defining the word ‘good’ per se. Dagobert Runes has a passable two part definition1:

1.  In ethics, morally praiseworthy character, action, or motive.

2.  Anything desirable, or that ought to be desired.

However, the words ‘praiseworthy’ and ‘desirable’ seem a bit circular rather than defining to me, and leave the real concern of relativity. After all a tyrant believes control of others is desirable, but it is not clear that makes for a ‘good.’ Webster’s dictionary has a half-column, 58 meaning entry for the word ‘good.’ None is more exact or more useful than these.

Aristotle thought of a ‘good’ as something which leads to happiness, but that seems insufficient for more general use. Accordingly I will again suggest my own definition:

Good is that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe. Evil then is simply its negative.

No one need accept this definition, but the alternative is to rely on one’s own intuitive definition of good.  G.E. Moore thinks it is too basic a concept (like ‘yellow’) to be truly definable. This is troubling given the foundational nature of good and evil in much of practical philosophy, but the reader can at least get a sense of my use of those essential words from my definition.

1  Runes, Dagobert, Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, 1950, p. 118.

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