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The Blind Laws of Human Nature
Patricia Herron looks at life and death philosophically.
In the past I have given this brief description of who I am: “Patricia Herron is a philosophy and religious studies professor, writer, poet, artist, seminar lecturer and lifelong seeker of the truth that can be heard within the silence of the soul.” Over the last year or so I have included another clause: “I now have Parkinson’s disease and live in a care home, until hopefully I can be on my own again.” I have a small, but comfortable room with large patio doors overlooking a spacious country scene. Trees and distant mountains add to the beauty, as do the deer that walk silently amongst the trees as though hiding from probing human eyes. When I look out, I also see the patio blinds, which remind me of prison bars.
I also teach a class with only one student, Linda, my financial advisor. Class is every Tuesday evening, in the room with the patio blinds that look like prison bars. Linda is brilliant as she questions and wonders about in-depth ideas and insights. One of our textbooks is The Heart of Philosophy by Jacob Needleman. While teaching and studying the ideas in this book, I was confronted with the insights “Everything obeys fundamental laws; everything!” and “A law of the universe is necessary and substantial, and more real than the objects we see and deal with everyday” (pp.98-99). Needleman also claims that science has not discovered the laws which govern life and death, nor life of the mind. Linda and I became enthralled with these ideas. I had always wondered why something as close to us as death escapes our understanding.
A sudden death occurred recently in the foster home. I was working on my new laptop computer, which I call ‘the beast’ since my hands do not operate as well as they used to. Trudy entered my room. She was 88 years old and had a wonderful sense of humor, and seemed to never complain (hardly ever). She struggled awkwardly in moving from her walker in order to sit across from me on the bed as I sat in the chair. Her legs dangled down over the edge of the bed. Trudy looked over toward the patio, through the prison bars, and said, “It is such a beautiful day.” She then asked what we were having for dinner. Since I didn’t know, she slid off the bed like a seal and eased into her walker as though in one long motion. She went into the kitchen next door, and the care-giver told her we were having baked chicken. She was happy with this news. Trudy then walked directly to her room, collapsed on the floor, and died. It was a great shock to the remaining occupants. I thought, ‘death does come like a thief in the night.’
Were there universal laws hovering over Trudy that day – laws that are stronger than death? The laws are stronger than death since death must obey these laws. And how do the group of three – life, death, and mind – relate one to the other?
The biologists have a theory about aging and death. The following is from a lecture by Jordan Hofer, a biology professor:
“The nucleus of the cell is where the DNA resides, usually coiled into tight masses called chromosomes. At the extremities of the chromosome arms are the telomeres, portions of mostly non-coding DNA. As an organism ages and its cells divide again and again, portions of chromosomes can degrade or break off during the physical process of cell division. The portions most likely to be degraded are the telomeres, and as an organism ages, the telomeres become shorter and shorter until finally they no longer remain, and then physical damage begins to affect the coding regions of the chromosome, resulting in a loss of coding DNA and, ultimately, functioning proteins. This is a major part of ‘aging theory’.”
Another major concern for some scientists is to find a universal law for consciousness. Some feel that there is an evolutionary explanation for consciousness. Richard Dawkins thinks once cumulative natural selection begins, it seems powerful enough to make self consciousness probable, if not inevitable. Further, materialists argue that joys and sorrows, memories, ambition, the sense of personal identity and free will, are nothing more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Such mechanical explanation reduces something higher to the effect of something lower. Some others say the mind is the result of an energy force swirling throughout the body, creating a soul-like consciousness; and when death arrives, these immaterial entities die along with the body. This view is a variety of epiphenomenalism. Epiphenomenalism says the mind dies along with the body. Yet one of the surest axioms of science is that energy can never die, ever – only change its form. So how can the materialist and the epiphenomenalist be sure that consciousness also dies with the body? First they would need to discover the nature of consciousness.
David Chalmers claims that subjective experience is the ‘hard problem’ for science. Why should physical processing in the brain give rise to our rich inner lives? This problem persists even when the relevant brain functions are explained. Raymond Tallis would agree. He has said that the basic elements of subjective experience, so-called ‘qualia’, do not correspond to anything in the physical world, and therefore they do not move or change under the influences of the laws of physical nature. Robert Lanza, in his book, Biocentricism (2009), states, “now comes the biggie, the oldest question of all, ‘Who am I?’ If I am my body, then I must die. If I am my consciousness, these senses of experience and sensation, then I cannot die, for the simple reason that consciousness is ultimately unconfined” (p.191).
Pre-Socratic Mind-Body Thinking
The pre-Socratics [Sixth century BCE] were the first natural philosophers/scientists. They were looking for the underlying laws of nature. They shared the belief that there had to be a basic substance at the root of all things, and that they no longer wanted to turn to the ancient myths for explanations. Thales was the first of them, and Anaximander was his student. This group also included Anaximines. Thales thought that the source of all things was water; Anaximander thought it was air; and Anaximines thought it was ‘the unbounded’. For the pre-Socratics, all motion in the world was inherent in the underlying substance, such as water, air, or numbers (Pythagoras). All movement and life-energy was contained in the one underlying substance. The process was not blind, since the substance contained its own life-giving impulse, and it sought order and harmony in spite of the world’s stubborn reach for chaos.
As I mentioned, a later philosopher, Pythagoras, taught that numbers lay at the heart of reality. He felt numbers were the penetrating basis of life itself, perpetuating order and harmony throughout the world, and that one could reside in this harmony and become one with the universe. Thus, just like the majority of the pre- Socratics, Pythagoras would disagree with the idea of ‘blind laws of physics’. Many would also be at odds with the materialists, who maintain that everything, including consciousness, can be reduced to [that is, completely explained in terms of] matter. Indeed, the first philosophers can instead be thought of as immaterialists, because they believed the world was alive (cf animism). Democritus the Epicurean, however, was a materialist, since he believed in nothing but material things: the only things that exist, he believed, are atoms and the void. Further, he thought that there was no conscious design in the movement of the atoms – everything in nature happens mechanically. But what about the soul? Surely that cannot consist of atoms, of material things? Well, Democritus believed that the soul was made up of special round, smooth ‘soul atoms’. When a human being died, his soul atoms flew in all directions, and could then become part of a new soul formation. This meant that human beings have no immortal soul – another belief many people share today. Like Democritus, they believe that we cannot retain any form of consciousness once the brain disintegrates. But is this true?
Sorrow & Strength
The laws of mind and life can only be known through observation of how the mind and life actually work. These are laws of creation and transformation. But what are the laws of life?
A partial answer is illustrated by Jacob Needleman. In The Heart of Philosophy, he tells how his student Sim visited with him concerning the grieving of his father over Sim’s grandmother’s death. She was well into her nineties. His father, who always seemed strong and capable, would randomly suddenly start crying. For instance, at the kitchen table he would put his head on the table and cry and cry. Anytime day or night he would cry, a flow of tears which seemed endless. Sim had never seen anyone cry like that. His father cried while reciting a prayer praising God at the graveside. His question to Dr Needleman was, “Why does death make people weak? And why praise God in a world filled with suffering, pain and death?” Dr Needleman told him that all feelings created the beautiful space of pure emotions which deepen and strengthen our inner being. They also briefly connect us with our True-Self, or the ‘I am’. Sim’s father’s grief, as pure emotion, made contact with all parts of his being, and an abundance of truth perhaps caused a chemical transformation in the brain. I am speaking of the energy of truth as one becomes the grief itself, as the dancer becomes the dance. The truth enters into one’s own flesh and blood. Hence the uncontrollable sobbing.
Sim said to Dr Needleman, “I do not want to die, even if it is necessary.” We are afraid, and so we want to understand and bring forth some grand theory which would dissolve the fear of death. As a character in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Nice and the Good said, we must learn to love chance and accident, and at the same time we want to understand it. The fear of death has met the wish to understand; and perhaps the wish to understand is the only thing in human life that is as strong as death. It is Eros, or love: the striving for being while beginning to know one’s self. To understand death we must not in our fear of it cover it over with the poetic, magic, fantasies and other theories: we must confront it head on without the many ways we use to distract us.
Raymond Tallis has satirized the world’s troubled attempt to discover the laws of consciousness through the ironic phrase, ‘the blind laws of physics’. It is, however, reasonable to say that there are ‘blind laws of human nature’, since powerful emotions and feelings are great currents which can run rampant. They are great living currents: hot waters and cold waters; boiling, liquid emotions, sometimes iced in frozen feelings. Then the energy of the ‘lower self’ can take over. Yet history tells the story of this mistake very well, in the Holocaust and other violence and genocides. If we empty the self of feelings which are not of truth, this will make slaves of us all.
Rudolph’s Steiner’s influence on the world is astronomical. While I do not agree with some of his insights, which seem to me strange waters (such as reincarnation, the life between death and birth, or the occult history of the world), I think he had great insights into education, art, farming, architecture, social theory and epistemology. On p.55 of the book Rudolph Steiner by Gary Lachman, Steiner is quoted speaking on pessimism in contrast to optimism. Although he was an optimist, Steiner more-or-less defended pessimism, in order to reveal another level of truth transcending both concepts. The following excerpt from Lachman complements the above insights about grief:
“There is an enmity between brute nature and human ideals, and it needs to be acknowledged. But, Steiner [said], man’s independent inner world creates out of itself meaning, value, and purpose; and these, he argued, are stronger than the vicissitudes of life. He also added that our inner being cannot grow if everything it needed were simply given it by nature. Our freedom wouldn’t exist if nature or any other external power nursed and protected us as if we were children. ‘External nature must deny us everything, so that the happiness we achieve is wholly our own independent creation.’”
The following poem reflects this idea that our inner being cannot grow if everything were simply given to it by nature:
It is time to prune from the old tree
The tenderest branch.
Did you see it has started to grow in an imperfect way?
Perhaps the old tree and its protectiveness
Has created shade and darkness,
Shut out the light and started the blight of
The tenderest one.
So place it in the new soil prepared
And let its wings take in the air.
Life-giving sun will shine on thee,
Grow straight and tall, tenderest tree.
© Patricia Herron 2011
Patricia Herron is a philosopher, religious studies professor, writer, poet, artist, and seminar lecturer.