30 August 2008

The First Mystery: Stuff of Life, Part II

As we saw in Part I of this post, the body is nothing more than a riverbed, or maybe even a river itself, through which flows a host of compounds in such a way as to provide an illusion of relative material permanence. The gene, which we may have considered the basic building block for material existence "is also abstract as a pattern, independent of the atoms that implement it in any given moment, a meeting point between matter and energy, a message that moves in a wave of meaning through life, an acorn harboring an oak, an egg containing feathers, menu, songs and a map of stars."

In one of his many talks to youth, Krishnamurti exalts us not to fear this same flow of life, not to seek permanence where none exists. Paraphrasing him, he says that seeking permanence means desiring the pleasure of indefinite continuity and having everything that does not bring us pleasure to end immediately. For this we have built a society that guarantees permanence of property, names and fame. But life is not like that. In reality, life is like a river that moves and is eternally swirling, exploring, pushing and bouncing off its banks. Our mind, however, perceives this as dangerous, risky, unstable, insecure and so it builds a wall, a wall of tradition, organized religion, political and social theories. The gods within these walls are false gods; they are projections of our own desires and their writings and their philosophy are unfounded because life penetrates the walls and tears them down.

Only the mind without walls, without established position, without barriers, without resting places, that freely moves with life, beyond time, pushing and exploring, only this mind can be happy, eternally new because it is in itself creative.

This brings us back to the First Mystery of Life as Murchie corroborates with Krishnamurti by establishing that "an independent 'I' bounded by life and death is an absurdity..."

"...we are in the same hard-to-visualize field Einstein explored when working out his relativity theory along with its contingent concept that every individual's personal orbit through life is representable as a 'world line' framed in the common four-dimensional crystalline coordinates of space-time. And in case you didn't notice it, a prime philosophical deduction from world lines is that, if relativity be true, an independent 'I' bounded by birth and death is an absurdity, since ... the field concept now so well established as a foundation for relativity implies continuums in virtually everything, including space-time and most certainly its best-known derivative: life. In my view, furthermore, the key to comprehending space-time is the obvious (to me) fact that space is the relationship between things and other things while time is the relationship between things and themselves. The time relation thus requires some establishment of identity (between things and themselves) seeing as identity is indispensable in temporal continuity. But if identity is of the essence of time, it follows that when a human being gives himself to a cause, letting his identity be absorbed in something larger than himself, he is proportionately liberating himself from the field of time. Which tells us something about the relation between mortality and immortality and between life and death, for it presumes that, as one's self is swallowed by universality, to a comparable degree one becomes immortal."

So, it seems prudent to ask at this point, do only certain causes qualify as immortality generators? I can only guess that any cause that seeks permanence would not. However, I'd like to differentiate between seeking meaning, perhaps the most fundamental human impulse, and seeking permanence. Finding meaning or purpose in something sticks us in the middle of the raging river of life and frees us from the clutching, limited mind, only if this meaning does not need to be held up or justified by any of the barriers mentioned by Krishnamurti. True meaning opens us to further learning, is inclusive and universal, builds unity and justice and above all implies attitudinal and behavioral change as it leads us closer to living a life with fuller purpose. In this sense, meaning is life, which is what the 'I' not bounded by life or death seeks fervently.

Thus, giving oneself to a worthy cause, to meaning, through a circle of action-reflection, transcends the "I" over time, gently sets one in the torrent of life, and permits the seeker to comprehend both the abstract nature of body and soul and their mystical, impermanent fusion. The following quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha, explained brilliantly in the video below, perfectly captures the spirit of this conclusion:

"Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves."


Guy Murchie - The Seven Mysteries of Life
Krishnamurti - The River of Life
'Abdu'l-Baha - Paris Talks

27 August 2008

The First Mystery: Stuff of Life, Part I

Which came first: the hen or the egg? If you consider this question as classic and unanswerable, then your knowledge of science needs brushing up! Of course, the egg is easily proclaimed the winner by half a billion years as the hen has only been here for fifty million years.

This is just one of the lighter gems found in one of the most wonderful books ever written: The Seven Mysteries of Life by Guy Murchie. Here, a look at the first mystery which he calls The Abstract Nature of the Universe. Murchie's writing is so insightful and provocative that any summary or analysis runs the risk of extending beyond the length of an accessible blog post, so I will procure brevity.

"... this is the world where objects, without much plausible reason, shrink with distance, where thrushes pull up worms to turn them into songs, where an acorn becomes a giant oak in a century because it was forgotten by a squirrel. In other words, there is ... something fundamentally and profoundly abstract" about this world which in turn is so importantly mysterious that it almost unavoidably falls into place as the first of the Seven Mysteries of Life.

"Consciousness implies an appreciable awareness (and control) of matter, an interaction involving both the developing body and the emerging mind that is at once abstract and close to the quick of life. Indeed the fact that you can move your legs and walk, or your tongue and talk, makes you alive. And so does the fact that you can control the engine and wings and tail of your airplane when you fly. You may object that the airplane is not really alive because it is not a natural organism but only man-made and artificial. But I reply that so is a bird's nest artificial for it is bird-made and not strictly a part of the bird's body. And so too is coral artificial in the sense that it is made (or excreted) by the coral polyps. And so is the oyster's shell built of calcareous substances out of the sea. And so also are the shells of bird's eggs and a bird's feathers made of things the bird eats. And so are even your teeth and bones and your fingernails and hair, in fact your whole body. There is no definite line, you see, where artificiality begins. And there is no absolute boundary between life and the world. ... Just as your house is your shell and your coat your pelt, in effect, so does your consciousness form your aura of personal life..."

Perhaps the least abstract thing we can imagine is our body for it allows us contact with other material substances. However, "the reason a living body can be made of such everyday stuff" as water, fat, carbon, phosphorus, magnesium, etc... "of course is that it is complex and flowing and the stuff is not really the body but only what passes through it, borrowed in the same sense that an ocean wave borrows the water it sweeps over." In this sense, if we could ignore time then a wave could be considered material, but as we cannot ignore time it can only be considered abstract as "science knows a wave to be made not of matter at all but purely of energy, which is an abstraction."

"...reflecting on it at length and in the full context of time, the body progressively becomes as abstract as a melody - a melody one may with reason call the melody of life. ...although I had intuitively assumed life itself abstract, the physical body had always seemed simply material and I did not see how it could be otherwise. Then I tried to define the physical boundaries of the body and began to realize they are virtually indefinable, for the air around any air-breathing creature from a weed to a whale is obviously a vital part of it even while it is also part of other creatures. The atmosphere in fact binds together all life on Earth, including life in the deep sea, which 'breathes' oxygen (and some air) constantly. And the water of the sea is another of life's common denominators noticeable in the salty flavor of blood, sweat and tears, as are the solid Earth and its molecules present in our protoplasm compounded of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and a dozen lesser elements."

"... practically all of our material selves is replaced within a year" and if we consider even the most stubborn atom of iron in hemoglobin and even the bones which are continually dissolving and reforming, after five years one can presumably consider one's physical body completely new down to the very last atom. "Assuming this is approximately so, then of what does the body really consist? For a while I thought the body's essence might somehow lurk in the nucleus of each cell where the genes physically direct growth and development. ... Essentially no single atom or molecule or combination of them can be indispensable to a body for they are all dispensed by it. It is only the pattern with its message that proves really vital to life. On the ocean one could make the analogy that it is not the saltwater but the abstract energy that shapes and powers the wave. Likewise it is not the atoms in the DNA but their geometric relation that makes the gene. And it is not the paper and ink but the words and meanings that compose the book."

"The point is that it is the pattern of design itself that is the indispensable thing, and not just its representation on paper or in bricks and mortar. Of course the design is not really a thing in the material sense for it is abstract. Indeed it is a kind of intangible essence, something like Lao-tzu's best knot which, as he explained, was tied without rope. ... Thus our very bodies that we always thought were material ... turn out to be essentially only waves of energy, graphs of probability, nodes of melody being mysteriously played in our time."

As logical as this sounds, it is still challenging to grasp and its implications seem way beyond my current understanding. Our bodies are supposed to be material and the mysterious union formed with the soul is the necessary arena in which the soul can be tried, tested and matured. But, if the body is essentially abstract, then exactly what is the "material" context in which the soul progresses? Must this context be, as we seem to have conceived so far, such a concrete thing or is the illusion of tangibility enough to do the trick? Is the illusion of solidity what differentiates this earthly plane from such purely spiritual realms characterized by immortality and similar limitlessness?

Exploring these mysteries even further in this same post would reveal the feebleness of my attempts at brevity and so they will be taken up in Part II of this topic. Stay tuned.

18 August 2008

Bending the Rules of Capitalism

“When the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.”

I have been stricken even more than usual lately by the consequences of how our current economic model overlooks in far too many areas of human endeavor that which makes us happy and healthy in favor of that which makes at least some among us rich.

I read an interview with a medical doctor who was prohibited from practicing in her native Spain because she publicly decried how her fellow practitioners honored corporate agreements to dispense certain drugs instead of prescribing in response to real patient needs. Another example is how our food producers have spent the last 40 years selecting strains of crops based on their shelf life irregardless of how that renders most of them completely void of all nutritional value. Unlike doctors, leaders of the food industry have no commitment to anybody’s happiness or health.

This brings to mind a talk I heard the other day by the man in charge of corporate responsibility at McDonald’s (believe it or not!) who stated clearly in his talk and repeated during the question and answer period how McDonald’s would really like to make important reforms in the meat and dairy processing industries by buying grass-fed cows or “free-range” eggs for example, but that they don’t have enough clout to make any difference. Now, this guy is practically painting a target on his chest by saying this but I don’t think we gain anything by attacking or even analyzing such morally defunct fodder.

If we make an effort to try and understand where this guy is coming from, we can understand him better. Buying grass-fed cows or free-range eggs brings no benefit to McDonald’s unless it raises its profit margin, which it would not. It has no commitment that would lead us to expect anything more. Of course, sometime in the future when enough McDonald’s customers demand these changes, they will suddenly become profitable and surely then the food industry will make the necessary changes. Until then, don’t expect any miracles.

It is precisely this logic that Muhammad Yunus takes aim at in his book “Creating a World Without Poverty.” “Unfettered markets in their current form are not meant to solve social problems and instead may actually exacerbate poverty, disease, pollution, corruption, crime, and inequality.” … “I believe in free markets as sources of inspiration and freedom for all, not as architects of decadence for a small elite. … My experience has shown me that the free market – powerful and useful as it is – could address problems like global poverty and environmental degradation, but not if it must cater solely and relentlessly to the financial goals of its richest shareholders.”

He thus proposes a new type of business – one that “is totally dedicated to solving social and environmental problems. … In its organizational structure, this new business is basically the same as the existing profit-maximizing business. … But its underlying objective – and the criterion by which it should be evaluated – is to create social benefits for those whose lives it touches. … A social business is a company that is cause-driven rather than profit-driven, with the potential to act as a change agent for the world.”

He gives some interesting hypothetical examples before dedicating the rest of the book to chronicling his own existing social businesses: “A social business that designs and markets health insurance policies that provide affordable medical care to the poor.” As I have always felt that the insurance business was antithetical to happiness and health, this sounds really interesting.

This brief treatment of the urgent need for and the exciting possibility opened by social businesses leaves many questions unanswered, reason for which I suggest you pick up the book if this idea intrigues you as it does me. The more effort we spend trying to make food production, environmental stewardship, quality health care, education and equality responsive to both current market forces and basic human desires for health and happiness, the longer we will delay our date with social justice.

15 August 2008

Rethinking the Purpose of Cows

“Food must not only be good to eat, but also be good to think.”

The ethics of food arises from the fact that we are omnivores which, unlike squirrels, rabbits and lions, obligates us to choose what to eat. Few among us actually fulfill that obligation preferring to leave such hard work to our mothers and marketing strategists. The highly paid strategists at McDonald’s know that we will return to those few familiar dishes we grow to love as children which is why this blue blooded institution is one of the world’s top toy distributors.

This is but one of the many provocative and insightful ideas to be found among Michael Pollan’s writings and talks. I highly recommend listening to or watching his presentation at the “Food, Ethics and Environment” conference held at Princeton University in 2006
(found on iTunes U) at which time he had not yet published his wonderful book “In Defense of Food”.

Of course the above statements rest on the assumption that we are indeed omnivores. Admittedly most people don’t need to be convinced of this, but because he was talking to the type of people who would attend such a conference, he makes a compelling argument while addressing the issue of how to decide between an omnivorous or vegetarian diet.

We have, he states, a widely held, basic misunderstanding of domestication. “The animals on our farms, if you take an evolutionary view, are not figures of oppression or exploitation necessarily. Most of them have evolved in a specific direction
to in effect trade their independence, their wildness, for protection, food and the life that you can have under the roof of human culture. This is not a consensual thing in any kind of moral philosophical framework; it’s simply an evolutionary thing. Many animals and plants have refused to be domesticated. For some of them, strictly by trial and error, no strategy, no intention involved, no consent, have found that this life provided for their interests in a Darwinian sense, which is to say more copies of themselves, more habitat, more of their genes sent into the future. So for these farm animals … the good life depends on the good farm. Far too few of them have the good farm as their habitat and less now than ever before. But these are animals that when they do live on the good farm and have a humane life there, are realizing what they are on this planet to realize. Of course, animals will only be on farms to the extent that we eat them. From everything I have been able to learn … it will be very hard to create a truly sustainable agriculture without animals.”

The basic claim is that if we didn’t eat cows they would not receive our protection and, unable to fend for themselves, would disappear, become extinct, reducing biodiversity and important food chain elements.

This is the first time that I have seen a provocative and more academic version of the typical “…but if we didn’t eat cows, then what are they here for?” argument. I see several problems with this logic.

First, claiming that the purpose of the cow is to be eaten by humans begs the question about other animals. If you argue, for example, that the purpose of the gazelle is to be hunted and eaten by the lion, then what is the purpose of the lion? What is the purpose of the shark or the crocodile? Is it not enough that dogs are companions for humans, should we give them an even higher purpose by making them part of our diet? Of course, cows are domesticated and pretty defenseless while lions and sharks are not but just because humans have exploited willing partners such as the cow for many years does not imply that this is the most natural or ethical action. Custom is not the mother of ethics.

Second, is it impossible for us to concede intrinsic value to a cow? Who are we to decide what the purpose of a cow is? We have enough trouble figuring out what our own purpose is, so why waste good paper speculating about the purpose of cows? If there is one lesson we can take from the ecological disasters that we have caused, it is that regarding stewardship, nature is much more intelligent than we have so far proven to be. Speculating on this matter and getting the answer wrong is much more disastrous than focusing our minds on something more constructive and urgent like feeding the world’s poor.

Lastly, if we do the thought experiment, as Mr. Pollan would say, of imagining what would happen to cows if our diets suddenly excluded them, we are confronted with a situation similar to that of many other species for which we have become stewards. Bald eagles, many types of whales (including the killer whale), seals, turtles, many types of bats, bears, mountain lions, grey wolves, alligators, boa constrictors, foxes, jaguars, kangaroos, otters, clams, snails, insects and even a long list of plants receive special stewardship for being on the Endangered Species Act list. If cow populations became drastically reduced as a result of eliminating them from our diet, would there be one good reason that we couldn’t protect the cow as we do with all of the above plants and animals?

I agree with him that animals are essential elements to healthy farms although I don’t see how that implies making them part of our diet.

Despite several similarly unfounded and self-serving ideas in his books and talks, I definitely recommend reading what he writes, especially “In Defense of Food”, which will teach even the most indoctrinated a thing or two about the history, nature and consequences of “nutritionism” and our current food production system.