Everything abstract is ultimately part of the concrete. Everything inanimate finally serves the living. That is why every activity dealing in abstraction stands in ultimate service to a living whole.
–Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Essays on Women; courtesy of Wikiquote.
That time either has no being at all, or is only scarcely and faintly, one might suspect from this: part of it has happened and is not, while the other part is going to be but is not yet, and it is out of these that the infinite, or any given, time is composed. But it would seem impossible for a thing composed of non-beings to have any share in being.
–Aristotle, Physics, as translated by Joe Sachs (Rutgers University Press: 2011), 217b30; courtesy of Wikiquote.
One of the most important concepts in all schools of Buddhism is pratītyasamutpāda (in Sanskrit–the Pali form is paṭiccasamuppāda). The word is a very long one in either of the classical languages of Buddhism, but it is not only a key philosophical notion in Buddhist thought, it has a much wider applicability, particularly in the modern, industrial, interconnected world in which we live. I have referenced it here and there in different places on this blog, and in various comments I’ve made on other blogs I frequent. Despite this, I’ve not spoken about the term in and of itself at any length. That’s an omission that needs to be rectified, since pratītyasamutpāda easily deserves a post of its own, particularly as a resource for future reference in discussion in which it turns up.
The first step in discussing pratītyasamutpāda is to translate it–what the heck does it mean? Edward Conze, one of the most important Western scholars of Buddhism in the mid-20th Century, delightfully translates the Sanskrit mouthful as an English mouthful: “conditioned co-production”. This is actually a petty good root-by-root rendering of the Sanskrit, but it is, as noted, quite a mouthful and perhaps not so delightful to the general reader. Other renderings include “conditioned arising” and “dependent arising”. The most common rendering I’ve seen is “dependent origination”, so this is what I’m going to use for now. So, we have a translation; but still, what does it mean?
Tags: anitya, anātman, buddhism, complex systemms, conditioned co-production, dependent origination, Edward Conze, Emptiness, infrastructure, interbeing, Mad Max, metaphysics, nidānas, paṭiccasamuppāda, philosophy, post-apocalyptic films, pratityasamutpada, religion, samsara, thangkas, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tibetan art, wheel of life, śūnyatā
Consider the following two quotations:
And suddenly all was changed. I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking upon it. And on the table there were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that. And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet representative of some one of the great presences that stood by. And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimicry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master. And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in this world. And the silver table is Time. And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.
Consider for an Example the Game and Play of the Chess, which is a Pastime of Man, and worthy to exercise him in Thought, yet by no means necessary to his Life, so that he sweepeth away Board and Pieces at the least Summons of that which is truly dear to him. Thus unto him this Game is as it were an Illusion. But insofar as he entereth into the Game he abideth by the Rules thereof, though they be artificial and in no wise proper to his Nature; for in this Restriction is all this Pleasure. Therefore, though he hath All-Power to move the Pieces at his own Will, he doth it not, enduring Loss, Indignity, and Defeat rather than destroy that Artifice of Illusion. Think then that thou hast thyself created this Shadow-world the Universe, and that it pleasureth thee to watch or to actuate its Play according to the Law that thou hast made, which yet bindeth thee not save only by Virtue of thine own Will to do thine own Pleasure therein.
The similarities are striking. Both are written in pseudo-Biblical English and both compare human life to the game of chess. The similarity is deeper, though. Both see the true nature of human souls as transcendent, existing beyond time and space. The chess pieces are humans as they perceive themselves and are perceived by others. In reality, though, the pieces are mere reflections or puppets of humans as they really are. To put it another way, life as we experience it is “real” only insofar as we have forgotten our true nature. Our actions express that nature to a degree, but only imperfectly. For the most part, we’ve forgotten that it’s “just a game”, and take our worldly successes and failures more seriously than we otherwise might.
This is not unlike the Hindu concept of līlā, which is generally translated as “play”. Līlā is not any play, however, but the play of Brahman, that is, God. The cosmos is seen as the arena created by God in which He can express Himself through manifestation. There is no “reason” that He creates the world beyond Divine play. All of us are tiny facets of God, the great Ātman (soul or self) of which our own minuscule ātmans are as drops in the sea. We’ve forgotten who we are, and liberation comes from the insight that there is no ultimate separation between ourselves and the Absolute. This is expressed in the classic aphorism “Tat tvam asi,” that is, “Thou art That,” the “That” being Brahman.
Not to drag out the suspense, but neither of the authors of the above passages was Hindu. They were both British and rough contemporaries, both producing most of their best-known work in the mid-20th Century; but aside from that, not only did they have little in common, but they would be perceived by most as almost polar opposites. The first quotation is by C. S. Lewis, from last chapter of his book The Great Divorce. The second is by Aleister Crowley, from Liber Aleph vel CXI: The Book of Wisdom or Folly, Chapter Beta-eta. Lewis was an Anglican and an apologist for Christianity in general. Crowley was an occultist and founder of the magickal (his spelling) and occult religion known as Thelema. One can hardly imagine two less similar men; and yet their thinking was clearly and strikingly convergent, at least in this instance.
What to make of this? I have no particularly profound insights. What I would say is that certain notions tend to crop up repeatedly in philosophy, theology, psychology, and mythology. It is said that “great minds think alike”; but even great minds can agree and still be wrong. At one time, the greatest minds all believed in a geocentric cosmos, after all. Still, convergence, especially between thinkers with very different beliefs and perspectives and who were unlikely to have influenced each other (Crowley might just possibly have read Lewis, but I can hardly imagine the opposite!), often indicates ideas worth pursuing. Here, both men are saying that in one sense, this world and our perceptions of it and ourselves are not fully real, at least not in the deepest sense. Not only are Lewis and Crowley aligned on this, but as I noted, they align also with Hindu thought. For that matter, the idea that the cosmos as constituted is unreal or hides a deeper reality is very much a Gnostic notion, as well.
Make of all this what you will. I think there’s something to it, though I’m not at a point where I’m willing–or able–to write a detailed treatise on the matter (though I may in the future). Still, it’s interesting, and definitely food for thought.
Update 18 August 2021: I did a bit of research on the timeline of publication of the books containing these two quotes. Crowley wrote Liber Aleph in 1918, at which time Lewis was a young man serving at the front in World War I. Thus, Crowley was certainly not influenced by Lewis. It was originally published in Equinox, the magazine of Crowley’s occult order, the A∴A∴ (Argentum Astrum), and not in book form until 1962. Equinox would not have been publicly available until after Crowley’s death in 1947; and the reprints were likely not widely circulated even then. The book form of Liber Aleph came out the year before Lewis’s death, so he could hypothetically have read it. However, The Great Divorce was written in 1945, at which time Lewis would have had no access to Equinox, and at which time the book format was yet to be published; thus, Crowley could not have been an influence on Lewis in this passage. There was enough overlap in their lives that they could possibly have read some of each other’s books (though that seems unlikely); but any such reading could not account for the parallel here. It therefore is a coincidence, or perhaps convergence, and a striking one at that.
In going through old documents on my expansion drive, I found an essay that I had originally written for the defunct Beliefnet blog Kingdom of Priests. I don’t recall the context in which I originally wrote it. However, I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile discussion of faith vs. reason, and the possibility of miracles. I have edited it very slightly, and will post it in “Religious Miscellany”, since it works best as a standalone essay, I think. Enjoy!
I think there are important distinctions to be made among the irrational, the nonrational, and the suprarational. “Irrational” means “against reason”–especially in the sense of “contrary to established, observable fact“–and is rightly used as a derogatory term. Examples would be believing that the Earth is flat, or that 2 + 2 = 18; or behaviorally, punching someone out because he’s wearing blue. In short, “irrational” means lacking reason in an area in which it is expected.
“Nonrational” means “not having to do with reason” and is neutral. All lower animals and computers are nonrational–they have no self-awareness* and do not reason. Even a computer does what it does automatically. Emotions and preferences are also nonrational, but not necessarily irrational. My preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate has nothing to do with reason–it’s a matter of taste–but it’s not irrational, either. No emotion is “reasonable”–emotions can be used for good or bad purposes, but they have their own domain while reason has its own area, as well. The interrelationship of emotion and reason is complex, but neither is “superior” to the other, or sufficient by itself. Reason by itself isn’t enough–as Chesterton said, the problem with the madman is not that he’s illogical, but that he’s only logical. Reason alone can’t give meaning, purpose, or proportion. In the words of the Scrpit song, “You can’t find faith or hope down a telescope”. On the other hand, emotion alone is incapable of exercising judgement. To jettison reason would put us at the mercy of every transient feeling. That way lies barbarism and chaos. True humanity is reason (or logic) and the non-rational (emotion and intuition) working together harmoniously (we hope!). To be pop-culture about it, you need Spock and McCoy!
Way back here we looked at the question of why humans are created as embodied beings. In most Abrahamic religions, and in some other Western religious systems, as well (e.g. Platonism and Gnosticism), God is said to have created the bodiless intelligences–what we call “angels”, some of whom later become “demons”–before He made embodied intelligences–that is to say, us. Since the angels are typically seen as far superior to us, the question arises as to why God bothered in making embodied creatures to begin with. I came to no definite conclusion on this question, though I have some ideas banging about in my head. What I want to do here is to put a different spin on the whole question by looking at the angels and speculating as to what, exactly, they are. This will tie in with some other themes we’ve looked at.
In the Christian tradition*, beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and continuing through various Church Fathers and theologians throughout the centuries (not least of whom as St. Thomas Aquinas in the West), angels have always been understood to be bodiless spirits. In our discussion of the soul a little while back, we described the human soul as the seat of personality and intelligence, which is immaterial and which can survive the death of the body. An angel has a personality and intelligence, just like a human; but it has no body. Thus, an angel could be viewed as a pure mind. Angels, of course, are often described as being humanoid in appearance–and sometimes, spectacularly, non-humanoid (see Ezekiel 1:4-21, Isaiah 6:2, and Revelation 4:6-8, for example). Despite this, though, they lack physical bodies–such appearances are for the benefit of humans. The angels either take on a temporary body (to put it in modern terms, they manipulate matter into a body which they use like a puppet) or manipulate the viewer’s mind so that they see an apparition that isn’t physically there (something like this is implied in the Book of Tobit, when Raphael reveals himself to be an angel; see Tobit 12:15-19). Theologians have debated which of these scenarios is likelier; but they have agreed that angels have no bodies of their own.
Last time we talked about the concept of the soul in general, as it’s usually understood in our culture. Having established that basic foundation, I want to use it to analyze the question of who–or what–actually has a soul. This is why, by the way, I’m categorizing this post in my polygenism series. The ideas I intend to develop will figure more prominently in the larger context of polygenism and (possibly) the Fall of Mankind.
So as we said, the soul as generally understood could be defined as follows:
- It is the seat of personality and individuality
- It is associated with the body, but different from it
- It is immaterial, or to put it differently, non-physical
- It is separable from and can survive without the physical body
Definition: To be clear, 3 means not made of matter or energy. The soul is properly defined as “spirit”, which is not part of the material universe in any way. We discussed this a bit last time. We’ll look at the term “spirit” shortly.
Corollaries: From 2, it is clear that though the soul is not itself material, it can affect physical objects. It does this every time we move, in fact. If psychokinesis is a real phenomenon (which I may discuss in detail later, but won’t here), then the soul may be able to affect matter beyond the body with which it is associated. From 4, it follows that it is at least possible for the soul to survive physical death. While not a direct corollary, the immortality of the soul–that it is indestructible and can never cease to exist–is typically assumed in the Western tradition since the time of Plato.
What I want to look at now is how, and if, the term “soul” can be applied to life forms besides ourselves–principally animals, but plants, too.
“Body” is a concept with which few of us have a problem. We all have bodies after all. No one doubts this, except perhaps for solipsists and those who’d argue that we are actually brains in vats (or for Wachowski fans, that we’re connected to the Matrix, which is essentially the same thing)*. For the purposes here, at least, we’ll consider such viewpoints in light of the commonsense perspective–that is, that they’re cracked! Thus, what I want to look at is the idea of the soul. I’m doing so in order to develop the groundwork for some ideas I want to explore in my series on polygenism, specifically, and more generally in regard to my series on the Fall. Since this post itself is a sort of stand-alone, though, I’ll put it in “Religious Miscellany“.
I should preface this discussion by stipulating that I do believe that the soul, as an entity distinct from the body actually does exist. Obviously, not everyone believes this. Many of the philosophically materialist persuasion would argue that what is commonly called a “soul” is merely the complex interaction of electrochemical processes in the human brain. The more radical would argue that the mind itself is no different from the brain, except perhaps in an analytical sense. Some, such as Daniel Dennett (if I understand him correctly) would even go so far as to deny the existence of sense of self and personal experience. In this post, I’m not interested in arguing against a materialist view of the comos. For those interested in such a defense, I’d refer you to C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles. For now, suffice it to say that I’m taking the existence of a discrete, immaterial soul that is distinct from the body for granted.
We use the word “soul” all the time, and we all have a vague agreement on what it means. In general, “soul” means the center of identity that makes a person who he or she is, and which is distinct from the body. That is, our memories, thoughts, emotions–that which we consider to be our “self”, our “identity”, including but not limited to the mind, is the soul. The soul is in some sense “in” the body (though the spatial term “in” is really a metaphor) and interacts with and is affected by the body–for example, if the body becomes tired enough, we become unconscious, and things such as drugs can affect our minds. Despite this, the soul is distinct from the body, and is usually held to be separable from it, and to survive the body’s death.
Further, as is popularly conceived, though not always clearly articulated, the soul is not only the locus of the true self, it is the self. We speak of having a soul, like we have a car or a television. However, as the term is usually understood, it’s more accurate to say that we are souls. This follows the ideas of Plato, notably in his dialogue Phaedo. In effect, the true person is the soul, which merely “wears” the body as one would wear clothing. Thus, while we may identify with our body, there is still a sense in which we do not consider it equivalent to ourselves. We speak of “my” hand or kidney or hair, as if these things are not actually part of us, any more than “my” book or computer is. We say of a departed one that “he” went to Heaven (or perhaps Hell), or that “he” was reincarnated. Since his body remains, it is evident that the “he” to which we refer is the soul.
On this rather elliptical path towards looking at religion as role-playing, we’ve looked at the religious milieu of the ancient Greco-Roman world, the origins of monotheism, and why it replaced paganism. Many aspects of pagan belief remained, of course, under a (sometimes extremely thin) Christian veneer, and sometimes more or less openly as various types of folk practice and superstition. Still, Christianity was on the whole dominant for nearly a millennium and a half after it conquered pagan Rome. What struck a blow from which Christianity has never completely recovered, and which began the disenchantment of the world in earnest, was the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment is the period beginning at about the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century in which a new focus on reason and secularism began to be manifested in Western and Central European society, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe. It’s always hard to give a concise definition of a complex phenomenon such as the Enlightenment, but the following points can serve as a beginning. The Enlightenment was characterized by
- An emphasis on human reason, as opposed to Divine revelation.
- A focus on science and the scientific method.
- A call for political and social equality: that is, democracy over monarchy, the intrinsic equality of all classes and nationalities, and even the beginnings of equality between the genders.
- A call for political and religious liberty: Established religions were to be opposed, freedom of religion and association were promoted, and people were to be free to change their governments if need be.
- A desire to put human reason and science to work in improving human society, especially by rationalistic and technocratic means.
- An emphasis on the individual over the collective.
- A suspicion of organized religion and a tendency towards Deism and anti-clericalism.
- Optimism and (to some extent) utopianism as to the prospects of improving society; and a tendency to view the past as primitive, superstitious, and obscurantist, and the future as the realm of glorious possibility.
I think those points are a fair outline of the Enlightenment worldview. It’s very clear from points 1 ,2, 5, and 8 why the Enlightenment resulted in so much disenchanting of the world; but before I go on with that, I think we need to look at the context of the Enlightenment, lest we misunderstand what followed.
Tags: Catholicism, Christianity, disenchantment of the world, Enlightenment, faith, Man's Search for Meaning, Max Weber, metaphysics, philosophes, philosophy, Protestantism, rationalism, reason, Reformation, religion, roleplaying, science, sociology, Thirty Years War, Viktor Frankl, Voltaire
Last time we looked at whether God could have created truly free beings that either could not or would not sin, and concluded that likely He could not do so. In short, truly free beings must have the possibility of sinning, and given enough time, at least some are almost certain to do so. A third question we posed and saved until later, to wit:
Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?
This question seems to be on a tangent from the questions about the ability of beings to sin, but there is a subtlety involved, which I’ll get to a few posts down the road. In the meantime, I want to look at possible answers. After all, the various Christian accounts of creation, orthodox, Gnostic, and other, all agree that God began creation by making the incorporeal–bodiless–intelligences that we call angels, demons and (perhaps) other types of spirits. Embodied intelligences (such as ourselves), and for that mater, the material cosmos as a whole, were not created until after the spirit realm. In most traditional religions, though, the spirit realm is thought of as being “higher”. The question, then, is if this is so, why did God bother with the “lower” realm–our realm–and with us? Weren’t we a bit of a come-down from the angels?