The human animal has but a brief interval of unmeasured time, an indefinite, but ever-running hour-glass, that will – as surely as the sun will continue to crown one horizon and dissolve into the other – run out. And then his place will know him no more; and all of his sighs and songs and furies, will be no more.
“I could be bound in a nutshell,” mused a great poet, “and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I dream.”
Oh, those tantalizing dreams; those ever-erupting echoes motivated by longings deeply rooted in the primeval subconscious self: desires not always fully understood, not always spelled out in the all-too-often murky language of the conscious self; yearning visions more often than not dammed up, or subverted by, the thousand unnatural and negative shocks that our beings have been made heir to by religions and philosophies rooted in renunciation and self-hate, in fear, mysticism, and fate; or in a dreadful, mindless dabbling with psychedelic drugs.
Since we are not born in nutshells, since we are dreamers, we cannot exist without questions. We cannot live without seeking answers to questions. Just as it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, it is the nature of man to wonder. We are islands of wonderment in an ocean of questions. Among them:
How came this universe to be, and what is it made of? What is the relationship between mind and matter? Is knowledge empirically relativistic or is it abstractly absolutist? What is the measure of good and evil in the universe? Is man free to mold his own destiny or is he a mere straw in the wind? Is death the end of our existence? Is the human soul “personal” or immortal? Is there a God?
Only the philosophically-aware person – in the truest sense of the concept: an individual with an integrated view of life that is both rational and consistent, as opposed to the followers of the magicians of mysticism, who succumb to the rankest of superstitions, and the simplest psychological pacifiers – can begin to approach these questions. Only the thinker who looks by means of human reason for intelligible theories that apply to the world or the meaning of life can begin to find answers to these questions that truly relate to the “human condition.”
Like it or not, the lifestyle of the individual is in his own hands. The course of a human life is marked out by the values he, or she, has chosen. Neither myth, nor mysticism, nor magic, nor warm-blooded feelings can truly assign value. Only cool-blooded rationalism can enable the individual to make the decisions that will effect his personal life in ways that will be both fulfilling and enriching. “Whilst I study to find how I am a microcosm or little world, I find myself something more than a fearful fool mesmerized by a catalogue of simple-minded wonders.” Thus speaks the eclectic human being in a world in which irrational certainty is invariably more comfortable than rational doubt – in which the most esoteric questions are invariably linked to the least objective solutions.
I am referring to the world of “faith.”
From Adae (the ancestral reverential customs of the Ashanti and kindred peoples of Ghana) to Zombie (the faith of the “living-dead,” those whose souls have been eaten by witches), thousands of religions shingle the metaphysical summits of the human species. Everywhere on earth, we find people turning to some version of a Supreme Being: a personal SUPER-parent who will provide them with comforting answers and easy salvation. From the grave Moslem worshiper in mosques, on housetops, and in the vastness of the desert; to the Hindu in his intricately carved temples, to the Buddhist before his flower-strewn shrine, to the Parsee before the sacred fire, to the Sufi or Yogi wrapped in mysticism, to the American Indian before the “Great Spirit” – a wide assemblage of God-seekers inhabit the world. Everywhere we see morality and reason subordinated to the beliefs of cults, denominations, and mysterious schemes that have survived down through the ages, or that happen to be contemporarily in vogue.
Even some scientists manifest a thirst for transcendence.
Is the universe a “cosmic computer” – a cellular automaton, as it were? Cellular automata can produce endlessly intricate patterns from the merest shred of a program; and that makes them very good candidates for computers of the cosmic variety. Ergo, a simple number – 81, for instance – might be pinpointed via cellular automation, as possibly containing the secret leading to the origin of life. But what would a monstrous computational universe really tell us about the reasons for life evolving in the first place? Well – we could always conclude that some cosmic computer programmer set the whole works in motion for the purpose of determining this, that, or something else. But that would bring us back to square one, wouldn’t it?
Sociobiology, on the other hand, propounds the revolutionary theory that plants and living creatures are like huge robotic devices that are employed by genes in order to reproduce themselves – genetic entrepreneurs, as it were. Ergo, the transmission of genetic information is the raison d’être of the entire system. Out of this theory comes the evolutionary basis for cooperation and altruism. As a result of this “ruthless genetic calculus,” we cooperate with each other, even to the point of sacrificing our lives if necessary, because a goodly number of our genes will be preserved. Are we really so mechanistic or robotic that our reasons for living and dying – regardless of the emotional and/or rational content of those reasons – are simply rooted in the preservation of our genes?
Other social scientists describe society as simply an “organism” – with life meaning nothing more than “unity.” This “general systems theory” involves a fusion of evolution, information, and society, with the predetermination of life being to create more and better information – an “intention” of life that supposedly bears with it such moral imperatives as pacifism and ecological awareness. (And, no doubt, various and sundry other utopianistic commandments such as total equality, total happiness, and total sexual fulfillment.)
Consider, too, the crazy quilt of transcendentalism that exists outside of “organized” religion.
In this most advanced age of science and technology, East Indian faith-healers, New Age gurus, and scholarly apostles of the dictates of chance, carry the revolt against reason to countless thousands of Americans. What honest passion or ecstasy, what sense of life, what truthful desire, can be found in the First Church of Satan in San Francisco, where chickens are beheaded, naked women are used as altars, and phallic symbols are shaken toward each point of the compass for benediction; or in the throwing of the I Ching – that Chinese classic of cosmic gibberish; or in the simplistic mumbo-jumbo (“Rather than propel, the stars impel.”) of astrology, wherein fate and character are supposedly explained by concentrations of burning gases out in space?
The newest “faith” is the so-called Yuppies’ religion: the New Age philosophy. Common to many of its adherents are a belief in reincarnation, in astrology, in the miraculous powers of quartz crystals, in trance channelers, or mediums, individuals who claim to have the power to summon up voices from centuries ago. There are now New Age churches, radio programs, stores, tapes, newsletters, magazines, seminars, and classes, and jewelry containing “healing” stones. Mysticism running rampant!
But what of those of us who cannot accept the world of transcendentalism? Can there be more to religion than magic, mysticism, and miracles; more than spiritualism and supernaturalism; more than the occult, the uncanny, and the mysterious that has degenerated into mystification? Can we be “cosmic dancers” linked to nature rather than SUPER-nature? Is there life after theism?
Without question, the answer is – YES! Contrary to theists everywhere, “religious atheist” is not, like “objective theologian”, an oxymoronic description. Religion can also be defined as a specific system of non-theistic reverential belief. That religion can exist without a belief in a personal God is Siddhartha Gautama’s great contribution to the world of metaphysics. In the sense that the Buddha was a non-theist, I am a non-theist. I am referring to the mortal Buddha – the living Buddha before all of the legends about him were absorbed by myth, and he was transformed into an unadulterated, virgin-born, miracle-performing, deity.
Uncompromisingly, the religion of Buddha (budh denotes both to wake up and to know) was atheistic, since he did not believe in the existence of a personal God (or even a divine Trinity) in control of the universe, or in a world that was created by, and was governed by, a single Supreme Being having human traits of intelligence and will in magnified form.
All concepts of a Supreme Being have their origins in the indoctrination of a particular “faith.” There is no difference in principle in the manner in which little children, or converts, are affected by conditioning to believe in the doctrines of Christianity, witchcraft, Communism, voodoo, Judaism, or any other system of belief. The hucksters of deism would have us believe that religious language refers to divine reality that exists in its own right, independent of our human desires and thoughts. It is safe to assume, however, that divine reality had absolutely nothing to do with the deification of Nero, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and even Hirohito and Mao Tse-tung; nor with the total acceptance of these counterfeit deities on a reverential level in typical doctrinal language by millions of people. Obviously, the concept of God is precisely what the deification-conditioned mind decrees it to be.
Understanding this rather simple psychological phenomenon better than most philosophers, Buddha sought a way of salvation with dependence upon a self-reliant ethical life as opposed to the blind dependence upon any kind of divine being. He scorned as futile all supernatural theories regarding cosmic ultimates; he was indifferent to the fashion of philosophical flight into mysticism and supernaturalism; and he ignored the trappings of organized religion: worship, prayer, sacrifices, sacramentalism, priests, scriptures. Priests were unnecessary because each person should work out his own salvation. Sacrifices were unnecessary because there were no gods to whom to offer them.
In the simplest terms, his primary concern was with the inevitable consequences of human conduct. His “faith” was one of morality, self-appreciation, ethical individualism, and self-reliance – a faith with deep reverence for the universe; and an equally deep respect for Dharma, the Eternal Law of the universe. In Buddha’s understanding, the eternal Supreme Force of the universe replaced the creative Supreme Being. Rather than “force,” I prefer “substance” – the term cleverly used by Christians (“Three persons in One Substance…”) to embrace the concept of a Triune God, the mystery that three are one, and one is three. In essence, then, we are all persons of one substance – that of the Supreme Substance of the universe. We do not know whether the universe as we know it had a beginning – all Big Bang speculations to the contrary notwithstanding – or if it will have an end. From the standpoint of certainty, we know only that it is there, here, and seemingly everywhere.
Any interest in reincarnation on the part of Buddha was equivocal at best, for the reason that he did not believe in an immortal soul. After death, what? Reunion with the universe, as that basic matter of which we are composed is reabsorbed. Nirvana is reached. Oblivion is attained. There is eternal rest.
What of the soul, or personality that includes the mind, memories, and the propensities that have accumulated from a unique pattern of life experiences? Buddha surmised that the personality was not immediately extinguished at the time of death, but was slowly lost by degrees. The doctrine of transmigration is founded on this theory. But even for the brilliant Buddha, this was mere speculation without objective foundation. Some Burmese believe that the personality-soul forms into an invisible butterfly at the moment of death. Seeing a dead human being and a dead animal side by side, appearing as always, so strangely similar in death, and picturing invisible butterflies hovering over the corpses is, at best, imagination boggling – assuming, that is, that the Burmese see souls in all living things. If not, why not? The earthly human condition differs in degree but not in principle from the earthly animal condition. We eat, sleep, defecate, give birth, and even experience rapid eye movements (REM) when we dream, just like animals; and we cease to be with a similar kind of whisper.
Regarding death and the final dissolution of the personal soul, there is no test for determining if it is lost by degrees after quietus. Thanks to modern medical knowledge regarding diseases of the elderly, however, we can at least speculate about the degree of loss before death. Imagine a stop-action camera recording the total progress of Alzheimer’s Disease in a patient. The finished film would reveal the slow but progressive disappearance of everything that composed that person’s identity/personality/soul – leaving only a living shell with eyes that look but do not see.
Physically, spiritually, logically – where did it all go? Was it slowly deposited into some metaphysical receptacle somewhere? Did it slowly form into an invisible butterfly, as opposed to taking shape suddenly at the moment of a different type of death? Perhaps. But the dictates of logic point in an entirely different direction: That human soul simply ceased to be – just as the life of an engine ceases to be – or, as we say, “dies” – when a breakdown occurs, or when the source of power is interdicted.
Within the circle of the imposing universe enveloping us, not all is mysterious. Some of the questions that plagued our ancestors have been answered. Most importantly, we know that the Second Law of Thermodynamics – events in the physical world proceed spontaneously in only one unique direction – is neither schizophrenic (the law has only one face and only one bearing) nor surrealistic (the law never varies from day to day or year to year). Just as the same stream at any given point will never be exactly the same again, the same precise conjugation of atoms, molecules and bodily cells can never come together again to produce the same personal soul; nor can that same soul ever be reincarnated in conjunction with a different stream of atoms, molecules, and bodily cells, not only for the future as we see it, but for all eternity.
We know, too, that gravity, the speeds of light and sound, the compositions of earth, air, fire, and water, the change of the seasons, etc., never violate the law of identity. Apart from being deterministic but random – which explains the unpredictability of weather – the Supreme and also Moral law of the universe never plays magical tricks (miracles and wondrous predetermined acts) on Mother Nature and her flock of humans. We evolve out of one sleep to life; and we are reabsorbed into another sleep, losing only our personal souls, and leaving only the – WHY. And there’s the rub. It isn’t going quietly into that good night that’s tough. It’s going without answers. And this simple fact gives every stone-age witchdoctor and New Age guru the hook he needs to help him ensnare his share of the human species. Tragically, the human condition that we experience isn’t enough for the human animal. With self-interest rooted in superiority and egotism rooted in arrogance, he declares that his uniqueness qualifies him for immortality. (“I think; therefore, I am divine.”) Curiously, some of these same presumptuous creatures preach that the ego “oozing like a secret sore,” and the self that “overlays and obscures the Infinite beneath,” must be eliminated, before one can ever transcend creaturely existence and be transfigured by that “clear day of eternity which never changes into its contrary.” Rather than life being “out of joint,” these self-deluded fools are “out of joint” with life. In an attempt to shatter the bubble of the universe, they gamble all of their living currency on a strategy that has as its foundation a paranoic denial of the essential elements of the human condition: rational self-interest and self-esteem.
Admittedly, we are not only ignorant of many things, we are faced with the unchangeable fact that life chases death. Our perceptions regarding the essence of the human condition can be changed, however. We can stop whining like lonesome orphans looking for “the great heavenly companion who understands.” We can face the fact that for just as long as we refuse to take a moral stand against supernaturalism, we will never grow up. We may come of age as far as years and size are concerned; but we will never be emotionally mature. Greed for comfortable doctrinal retreats tend not to edification. We can work to develop the kind of courage and moral strength that will enable us to handle the feelings of guilt, fear, and uncertainty that leave us vulnerable to the witchdoctor’s philosophy. We can begin to teach our children to revere the universe and the physical body rather than revering some magical creator of those substances; to appreciate the fact that not one single ordinance of the Supreme Law of the universe can ever be violated (smoking, drinking, using drugs, etc.) with impunity; to understand that for as long as they believe in immortal souls, they will never truly respect their mortal souls; and to realize that for as long as they worship some divine PAPA who will make everything right in the end, they will never truly take responsibility for their lives and their actions.
The impossible dream? Maybe. Nonetheless, I envision a future world in which honest, fearless human beings will raise their children to be as courageous and emotionally and morally sound as they are; a world in which people will be willing to accept their mortal material selves without the need to believe in immortal, non-material souls; people who will have the courage to traverse the razor’s edge of reality, secure in the knowledge that even though they will die without pat answers to every probing question, they will have made the best of their lives within the bounds of rationality rather than in the bonds of superstition.
If an intelligent extra-terrestrial happens to visit our little planet in the sun before that day comes, and if he stays long enough to take a good look around, his telepathic response to his spaceship will probably be: “Beam me up, Zemclaw. This place is a child’s night-mare.”
SOURCE: The Liberty Bell, March 1989