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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reclaiming meaning from the supernatural

(cc) DT Strain.
Last night at the Humanist Contemplatives Houston Meetup, we discussed the areas of overlap and similar concepts about the universe found throughout Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, and Complex Systems Theory. I centered mostly on those aspects which would be of greatest relevance to naturalists and Humanist ethics and outlook on life.

Using a variety of terminology from each of these, I had summed up and organized the concepts according to this outline:

a) the Logos: the universe operates according to a universal set of natural laws.
b) existence & subsistence: some things physically exist, but many phenomena subsist, meaning they are categories, labels, emergent properties, or other manifestations of the existing materials. This is a sort of metaphysical but not supernatural concept.

a) polarity: complimentary opposites are fundamental throughout nature.
b) the Divine Fire: a natural creative principle which runs counter to entropy.
c) self-order: spontaneous emergence of complexity in inherent in the universe is dependent arising.

a) interdependence: mutually interdependent phenomena are what make the universe holistic and monistic.
b) cause & effect: cause and effect networks as a wave abstraction, karma, butterfly effect
c) impermanence, transformation, & underlying unity: transmutation of substances and impermanence are all related to the ever changing flux, evolution, yet spring from a universal principle, similar to the search for a unified field theory.

a) cyclical manifestations: natural fractals as an example of cyclical patterns, biological cycles, replenishment, renewal, layered strata of order in systems, relate to underlying concepts in rebirth, the stoic conflagration, etc.
b) the aggregate self: persons as aggregates of qualities are emergent properties without a singular or unchanging nature, thus emptiness and the delusion of self.
c) emergence: other examples of emergent properties beyond the soul/mind and naturalistic approach to incorporeals
d) potentiality: fate, destiny, randomness, and free will - 'statistical fatalism'

That's a lot to take in in just a few lines of text, but it was the summation of five previous sessions of discourse. I'll be elaborating more on these in the future, but the point was this:

Sometime in the distant past, we draw a line between the natural and the supernatural which hadn't existed prior. By that I mean ancient philosophies of around 2,500 years ago, East and West, often considered the universe one whole. If they had ideas about souls or spirits, those words are only incidentally identical in spelling and pronunciation of those words as we use them today. Back then, they were more like the current scientific theories of their day as to questions such as 'why is some matter animate and others not?'  It was all natural and interdependent - it was an attempt to understand the environment in which we find ourselves.

Later, after the conceptual split between the natural and the supernatural, we imagined these separate planes of existence, with the supernatural being some sort of invisible realm. Souls became more like "ghosts" than minds, for example. But the significant point is this: not only was there a split, but we then went about collecting up all of things we consider profound, sacred, meaningful, divine, and spiritual, and dumped them into the supernatural column. This basically allowed us to take a few centuries off from seriously examining or understanding the sacred because we consigned it to the invisible and empirically unapproachable.

This was not too big of an issue until we get around to modern times. Now we have a good number of people either considering the supernatural irrelevant, suspect, or outrightly rejecting it. But with that rejection, we are simply chopping off a categorization that was created by a people who accepted the supernatural as part of existence. The result of simply chopping off the supernatural as is, is that we lose all things of deepest reverence and meaning, and are left with a 'nature' that is completely bereft and stripped of ultimate meaning and value. This is why, when you explain to someone that you only believe in the natural universe, they often imagine you must have a shallow depressing life of meaninglessness.

What we naturalists must do is examine closely those ancient spiritual philosophies of life which looked at the universe as one natural whole. We must reclaim the sacred, the divine, the spiritual, the meaningful, the profound - we must heal that schism and reunite the sacred with the natural. This is not so much a matter of making unfounded claims as it is reclaiming a perspective and a value system on Nature. It is about approaching Nature with the reverence and tone of the ancients, before the great natural/supernatural divide.

How do we do this? First, by learning about what ancient philosophers (who were a fusion of priest and scientist by today's standards) said about their natural universe, what they observed and what they found profound and useful about it. In that, we see remarkable parallels to modern scientific understandings of nature, brains, and complex systems. By noting those parallels, we can begin to approach the natural universe as understood by modern science through the eyes of a people who didn't see a need to relegate phenomena outside of nature or make claims based on faith.

We can then take those concepts consistent with modern understanding, and note how they drew a connection between 'is' and 'ought'. How did their understanding of the universe create a foundation for their practices, perspectives, and value systems that lead to the good life - the flourishing life?  If their concepts of nature were on-base in many of the more significant ways (which I find they were, albeit more generalized or poetic) then we should be able to construct similar lines of logic from is to ought. We should be able to end up with similar value systems, perspectives, reverence, and practices based on a modern and natural understanding of the universe.

Through this we can begin to grasp the essential 'spiritual feel' of Nature once more and build a way forward that fills human spiritual need, is a practical guide for achieving the good and flourishing life, and has intellectual integrity with regard to modern scientific understanding.

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