Meditation on nature

Close your eyes and breathe in. How do we meditate about nature? Let us think of some cliché scenes of nature: magnificent Alpine peaks, unspoilt blue lakes, endless tundra, rain forest. The concept of nature seems to be defined as those objects left alone by men. The fewer humans have set foot somewhere, the more natural that place is.

This idea of nature as ‘that which humans are no part of’ is intuitive to everyone who ever took a hike, but impossible to uphold in a serious intellectual debate. The emotional appeal of sublime and beautiful nature works because we are a part of it, and it is a part of us (we only need to think about the billions of friendly gut bacteria who reside in our belly). The juxtaposition man – nature is translated in an entanglement of the two, in which the terms are rather vague.

Still, the concept of nature is among us and it appears to mean something different than simply ‘being’. We remember Lord Byron’s famous romantic lines “I love not Man the less, but Nature more”. Nature is more awe-inspiring to him than people. He imagines ‘mingling’ with the Universe. He wants integration in nature as a pure enjoying observer, without the cumbersome dynamics of human relations. Yet, he must remain distinguishable from nature, so every now and then his self-awareness as an observer flares up. I see Lord Byron floating on a pristine lake, gazing at the clouds and the green hills, while he lets the awareness of his awe and his attentiveness slowly sink, until a fly wakes him up by sitting on his nose.

Breathe, Byron. Our concept of nature is fully artificial. It is a mental artefact that we create every time we observe the world and try to translate that sublime, overwhelming feeling of a raw, imposing reality into a short word. When we advocate “more nature in cities” we don’t care about our intestinal residents but about flowering plants and other forms of groomed, cultivated nature. When we say we “go into nature” we don’t mean a walk in the garden, but a hike in a primary forest or a sailing trip to an uninhabited island. We construct these concepts of nature when and as we need them to make sense of the world, to understand our instinctive primate reaction to the experience of the sublime.

In the same way, we distinguish ourselves as free agents from our human nature, the concept of which we often invoke to explain away the weakness of our will. We don’t think about breathing or drinking water when we bring up human nature, but about character traits. Here too, the category of nature helps us to interpret and bear our emotions, such as shame, envy or guilt.

We still love nature, and we are still going to call her nature. But we slowly become aware of our vantage point and the inadequacy of our concept. May a bird song remind us that we are that bird’s nature.

Meditation on nature was originally published on Meandering home

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Meditation on truth

How do we meditate on the idea of truth? Philosophers have written about it for many centuries. We will not revisit the theories of Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Kant, Frege, Derrida. We don’t need to remember anything if we think for ourselves. Take a long breath. Truth is a property of statements, not of things. We distinguish statements that are necessarily true like mathematical theorems and such that depend on their context like statements about the world. Is there anything we could know with absolute certainty about the world? Can we discover context-free truths about the world?

The law of gravity, or the second law of thermodynamics are true statements about the world, given a universe that was fine-tuned in a specific way. Otherwise we can only speak of their absolute truth in terms of mathematical models, not in the physical world. There seems to be no escape from this, but the debat becomes rather hair splitting at this point.

Let’s breathe some more. Is this meditation going anywhere? Should it go somewhere? It seems like there is some sort of instinct at work when we think about truth, and we could try to explain this instinct in terms of evolutionary pressure. Under primitive circumstances, when survival is not guaranteed, the propagation of true statements is clearly beneficial. A tribe must discover and share the truth about poisonous plants, dangerous animals, terrain, water sources, and the individual who discovers such truths can’t benefit from hiding them by telling a lie. This is different in complex societies. Lying can become a strategy to get what you want. False beliefs in others rarely endanger the survival of the group, but can be leveraged by shrewd individuals.

From the possibility of gainful lying arises the idea of truth telling as a virtue. The Enlightenment considers this self evident, but we know of cultures that explicitly allow lying as a strategy to enhance the influence of a religion, which itself is considered the highest truth. The problem of lying in the service or truth ought to be taken seriously, even if we don’t believe in some overarching, eternal truth. We only fully understand the virtue of truthfulness if we also understand there is no such thing as truth-in-itself. Our line of defense against untenable, universal relativism, is an informed vantage point of irony, from where some statements are clearly more true than others, but none is entirely and unequivocally true.

Meditation on truth was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on reality

First we breathe in and feel blessed. What inspired our meditation about reality must have been our involvement with it, in some way. There are people who think that what we call reality is ‘in reality’ a fiction. The universe is empty space laced with energy and some of this energy takes on a special form we call ‘matter’. Most of this matter is still empty space, traversed by particles of which we can’t determine momentum and location at the same time, etcetera, blah blah.

Reality for most thinkers means shared reality. Our dreams can be as real as the electricity in our brain, they are still less real than the common fictions we use to cope with life: Money, laws, organizations. We don’t need to expand that. Breathe some more and call reality whatever our friends call reality. Could it still be a dream? Of course, we could never rule out that theoretical possibility. All our friends could be in on it, elaborate hallucinations created by our brain to entertain itself. I would argue that this absurd possibility can never formally be disproved because it is a fundamental quality of consciousness that it cannot be sure that it is confronting something outside of itself.

So, reality is the world we talk about. In an extreme case of a group of people taking so-called reality altering drugs, when they share their experiences with each other, reality will indeed be different for them. If all of humanity uses such drugs, human reality will be different than the reality we talk about. The molecules are still the same, but the altered humans are for example not able to distinguish colors. There will still be different levels of light absorption and reflection, wavelengths hitting our retinas, but no colors. Breathe out.

Isn’t that too easy? How can a collective psychosis change reality? Here is the materialist point of view: I just want to mean the underlying atoms or protons or whatever when I talk about reality; I’m not interested in what we ‘mean’ by reality. Fair enough. But as soon as we charge it with meaning, as soon as we talk about it, reality is already more than ‘just’ the constant flux of the configuration of the cosmos. It requires the interpretation that distinguishes it from fantasy.

We keep breathing and think some more about this concept of reality. We cherish the irony of our consciousness that is fundamentally incapable of being absolutely sure something outside of it exists (bishop Berkeley) and at the same time presupposes reality for meaning and interactions with others. We realize (reality as a verb) that there is this Gordian knot at the heart of the concept. The Cartesian uncertainty can’t be cast aside by the notion of ‘hard reality’; absolute certainty is beyond consciousness. That doesn’t make the world less real. It just points out a very specific characteristic of reality that is us.

Drawing by Ianbourgeot.com

Meditation on reality was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on freedom

Breathe in and think about a beginning. How to start a meditation on freedom? Do we have an entry point, a route that we can follow? Let’s clear our head of all that has been said about freedom. Smile. We are going to choose freely what we mean by freedom here. We are gaming ourselves. It is an existential.

So we are aware of Libet’s experiments. We raise our arm first, and the neurons that are associated with our decision to do so fire some milliseconds later. Our body decides, our consciousness follows and creates an evolutionarily useful internal theatre of the free will. It seems there is nothing more to say about the subject. What we call freedom is a certain fysiological dance of axons and dentrites.

Lo and behold! We have begun to find freedom ‘boring’. Can we still wonder about the ‘privateness’ of a phenomenon? We have been here a million times, we can accept that freedom is a ‘dance’ of the elements. Some philosophers have insisted that such dance needs to be indeterministic because that is how we experience our freedom. Something inside us must be god-like, they seem to think, for we are the creators of our inner worlds. Perhaps the quantum indecidibility is what makes freedom possible on an ontological level. The thought that whatever I will decide next was already ‘written in the stars’ contradicts our experience of freedom, and the latter certainly should count as a genuine source of knowledge?

Let’s breathe a bit more. Thinking is praxis. And so is a meditation on freedom! A deterministic view that we can hold about freedom can lead us to discard the concept of responsibility and punishment. This is of course simplistic and lacks the elegance of philosophical reasoning. The decision to get rid of punishment and the concept of responsibility itself is ‘inevitable’ or ‘automatic’ in this story. But if we decide nót to get rid of responsibility some causal chain must have lead to it and in this story we accept causal chains. What we are saying (intentionally in a vague way) is that such conclusions from the alleged absense of freedom require some sort of ‘loyalty’ to a perceived truth. But loyalty is a concept of the same category these thinkers want to get rid of!

We close our eyes. Breathe again. We defend, against all too quick naturalists, the enigma of our freedom. When we say it is a ‘necessary illusion’ we don’t mean this lightly. Can intelligent machines experience freedom? Imagine a robot that has passed the Turing test. I think we can never tell, just like our human freedom must remain an enigma for each other. This humanist consideration would be an argument in favor of some legal status of machines that can interact like humans. I find this a hard discussion.

It is time to get up. Feel our living bodies again. Practise awareness. The freedom that we mean is the experience, not of an abstract moment in which we can or can not lift our hand, but the experience of a fulfilled life.

Meditation on freedom was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on love

Can we imagine a love that is without lack, hence without desire? We sit for a brief meditation on love. Erotic love, parental love, the love for truth, beauty and the good. Imagination that our love is indeed without lack, that the constellation lover – beloved has a value as it is and does not depend on vindication through future events.

We go too fast. Let’s take a good breath. Why do we want to know the nature of love? Are we afraid we cannot recognize it otherwise? Isn’t there always an element of “just so” involved? Why do you love me? Just because. Every lover has experienced this: An ultimate rationale will make love void, or feel void. A rational explanation is a narrative we can replicate, one that holds true in every occassion that is similar to the initial one in ways we that are clearly defined. Such reasoned ‘love’ for Anna must also apply to Berta (Anna’s clone) if she fulfills the same criteria.

The question is if there is an irreducible core to love that we cannot translate into reasons, a sort of mystery or a metaphysics if you wish. Hold on. We are meditating about love and stumbled over the very question ‘what is love?’ Doesn’t that make a fully naturalizing account tantalizing? Love in terms of oxytocin and neuronal pathways? Such analysis might one day be able to accurately analyse whether or not we love someone, but does it contribute to the meaning of love? A very bold naturalist might try a yes. We can find meaning if we describe love in terms of a shared paradisical future full of honeybees and butterflies, even if the reality happens in a small apartment in a boring neighbourhood. What if we just get used to the language of hormones and neurotransmitters? What if we learn to align our imagination of love with what actually happens, like a flushing of oxytocin?

The chemical narrative forgets about our storyness. The love we mean is consistent over time and survives stress (and long periods of absence of love hormones). We don’t reduce love to a story of endogenous drugs because love is a way we relate to the world. This may be overlooked in a laboratory setting because we don’t take the way rats relate to the world seriously. So, we feel that the chemical explanation of what happens inside our bodies when we love doesn’t answer our question. We want to know the value of love, we want to know how to love.

We began with imagining a love without a lack, so in a way without a future in which that love must be ‘realized’. Such timeless love is a depiction of a state of affairs, and the we attach a higher meaning to it. Picture two people hugging: “This is love”. There is nothing more to say. It seems to me that we have to make that gesture, ‘there is nothing more to say’, that is lover and beloved imagine a space beyond language that they inhabit together. This space can never be filled in with rational explanations, because it has the function of harboring the irrational side of love.

Love does imply lack. Loving interaction is all about the unknown future. Expectations, promises, vows. We could successfully deal with the future on our own and make promises to ourselves – we can love ourselves. But interpersonal love allows us to share something of our irrationality in the public space. It is important that our love is not only accepted but favored by the general public (hence the importance of gay rights). Our irrational core, necessary because we don’t have the Ultimate Answer, is contained in the shared imagination of love. The art of loving is a public play, a display of human affection that defies an ultimate rational explanation.

Breathe. I am not sure about what I said of rationality and love’s role as the quintessential irrational force. Perhaps this is just neoromantic cultural imagination? I’d love to discuss it.

Image by ianbourgeot.com

Meditation on love was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on humor

Breathe in. Think of the ridiculousness of life, the absurdity of existence, mortal or otherwise, the laughable preoccupations of breathing animals, the inane schemes devised by homo sapiens to cope with all that, and finally the splendid endeavour to derive from it the source of mere funnyness. We are asking if humor is our best chance of making sense of the world.

Is humor indispensible? Let us first observe humor depends on context. A mere pun or an isolated witty remark is not yet humor. It gets funny against the background of the context, which is alwags a power relation involving an implicit or explicit prohibition of the joke. Humor is a way to free oneself for a moment from a stronger power, because our laughing is beyond its control – and the more they try to impose their control, the funnier it gets.

Famous jokes about communism (coffee without cream rather than without milk because we ran out of milk) expose the system by demonstrating it is susceptible to jokes. It is no longer impenetrable and the ironic jomes about the system are ‘more ultimate’ than the system itself. No Red Book can compete with a good round of jokes.

Smile. I wanted to write a metaphysical account of humor and how the ironic distance allows us to share something universal because it makes visible the inadequacy of the internal rules of what we observe. I decided against it, because I haven’t thought it true. And perhaps is humor the very thing we don’t need a theory of.

Meditation on humor was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on purpose

We sit still with our eyes closed. In the distance, across the fields, are green hills. Alright, this is my concrete situation perhaps not yours. Never mind. The why-question or more precisely the what are we here for question is personally daunting. So much so, that we assume we can hardly help each other finding an answer.

Of course, there are no answers, only provisionary directions. Ideas we can adhere to. I leave religion out of this meditation for I am no priest. In humanism these guiding ideas might be something like contributing to society as good as you can, or searching for scientific truth.

I like to categorize these ambitions as love. Love for truth, love for other people, art, music, words, food. May our purpose come from love, not from fear. What do you fear? Death, shame, loss, the elements, financial insecurity, disease, dementia? Close your eyes. Next to you there is a poisonous snake. It doesn’t move. Are you afraid? Now on the other side there is a snake as well. You were in the right place to survive all along. Oftentimes, fear can misinform us.

So we should ask: How does this fear relate to our love? Can if make our love grow or is it an obstacle? Maybe we should realize that in the light of our mortality, the life-affirming sentiment of love is our most sensible wager. What we create out of love can be remembered independently of the morals of the day, to paraphrase Nietzsche.

Breathe deeply. Ask yourself what is making you tick, and what is it you want to make you tick? It the first based on fear and the second based on love?

Meditation on purpose was originally published on Meandering home