What Is the Old New Way?

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2014

The Old New Way is a group that formed in the fall of 2014 in Berkeley, California, with the intention of exploring what it is to be human in the 21st century.

We want to ask the Big Questions — Who am I? What’s the point of it all, anyway? How can I recognize right from wrong? — but without resorting to supernatural answers of any kind.

We accept that we are products of millions upon millions of years of evolution; that we are a particular kind of bipedal primates, members of a species called “homo sapiens.”

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We get it.

155 years after On the Origin of Species, it’s sinking in.

We realize that we therefore cannot expect to “know” everything. Nor can we hope to  “transcend” the physical world, since our capacities are limited by nature. (After all, even our strong moral sense and our “consciousness” are — so far as we can see — products of our biology.)

Oh yeah, and we accept that when we die… that’s it.

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What an amazing time to be alive!

With the threadbare fables and myths of millennia falling away around us, we can see more clearly than ever before!

Join us.

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Readings and activities for the Old New Way will range widely. (All suggestions welcome!)

It is our hope that, through this group, we will add to our understanding of ourselves and our world, and therefore enable ourselves to give more to the people around us.

Please feel free to take part  in our discussions — either in person or online.

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An Invitation

An Invitation

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2014

Hi Friends,

I am inviting you to join a new group.

This one is going to be different.

I am starting this group to explore nothing less than… how to live. How we might become a little more clear on such questions as:

What matters?

How can I act with more consistency in my life, and less confusion?

What increases my capacity for love?

What do I do with my sadness or my anger?

What I want to pursue, in this group, is a renewed sense of the sacred, but one that does not rely on supernatural claims. A sense of the sacred that is grounded in this life — your life as lived, full of everyday experiences.

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How are we going to pursue such an ambitious (audacious, you say) goal?

Well, that’s what we are going to try to figure out. I dont have the answers of course. But I do have the urge to try, together.

I propose a monthly meeting at my house (first one on Thursday, October 16, in just over two weeks), for which we do a small amount of reading in advance.

So, for example, one month we may read short excerpts from the Epicureans, the Stoics, the ancient Greeks. The next, from Montaigne and Shakespeare. The next from the French Enlightenment, or Nietzsche, or James, or Dawkins, or from current-day findings in anthropology and neuroscience.

The intention will not be a mere intellectual exercise, though, or a vigorous debate for its own sake — not at all. Our intention will be simple, every time: to deepen our lives in a lasting way.

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For the first meeting we will discuss the so-called “prehistoric” era, and our earliest ancestors’ understandings of themselves and their relationships with the world around them. Particularly their relationships to other animals. Seems a good place to start, since that’s how humans lived for hundreds of thousands of years before the modern era.

If this appeals to you, then join us!

Love,

Tom

A Brief Email Exchange on the Origins of Music

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2014

In anticipation of our first meeting, on October 16, 2014 (which will focus on prehistory), Christopher kindly emailed to the group the following video clip — amazingly preserved from the Neolithic era!

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This prompted Sasha to share with the group a book she had read that more seriously discusses the origins of music. She wrote:

….according to the book “The Great Animal Orchestra” by Bernie Kraus (Mills Music Grad),
human music originated from the sounds of animals.

So too language. Considering birds appeared well over 100 million years ago, and squirrels (they are chatty too), 50 million, seems like a likely theory. We were relatively silent in comparison to our nonhuman neighbors.

Ahh, how far we’ve come.

~Sasha P

I answered this with another email:

In David Abram’s book “Becoming Animal” he has an extended meditation on how closely tied we primates are — evolutionarily — to birdsong.

Think of how important it was to hear nearby birds fall silent when a predator approached. Or to know the differences between their courtship songs or call-and-response songs or warnings or distress.

It’s good to think of us feeling that, on some level, when we listen to, say, the harmonica break in “Love Me Do” — “Ahh, that’s a courtship song, ok to relax…”

So much happening to us all the time that comes from our relationship with nature.

 

An Email Exchange on the Question of Consciousness

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2014

A number of members have been sending emails back and forth on the question of whether there is something distinct about human “consciousness” (thus setting us apart from other animals).

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Ivan wrote to me, suggesting that the group might benefit from reading Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (click here to read).  And he added this commentary:

The crux of Nagel’s argument is that for every conscious being there is something internal and subjective that it is like to be that being and that this something cannot be reduced to that physical object we refer to as the brain. I mention this because I noted the reference to consciousness in the materials you circulated.

Personally, I don’t find the question, “What is consciousness?” difficult to understand — it’s the totality and flood of feelings, thoughts, sensations and perceptions we all experience throughout our lives. The difficult and interesting question from my perspective is: how can there be consciousness in the physical world of particles and forces described by modern science; or, how can the slab of meat inside our skulls possibly account for conscious life — after all, they are categorically different. One way to put this is that there is a seemingly unbridgeable “explanatory gap” between the brain in our skull and our conscious life…

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Dean then happened to send to the group a link to an opinion piece in the New York Times (click here to read) by Michael S. A. Graziano, covering some of the same territory.

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To which I responded by sharing my response to Ivan’s earlier email:

Why are we talking about consciousness? Why is this coming up for us in advance of the meeting? 

This question may not seem, at first glance, directly related to the topic this month, which is devoted to exploring prehistorical understandings of what it is to be human…

And yet it comes up quickly when we consider their (and our) relationships with other animals. Certainly it is central to why humans have claimed a unique status, as the only animal capable of self-awareness, “free will,” a “soul,” a “moral sense” — all resting on “consciousness.” For these are the buzz words that have traditionally set us apart — in the Great Chain of Being model favored by religions.

These words have warm associations for us all of… specialness, awareness, attentiveness, etc. But they are also linked to our sense of difference and alienation from nature, I would suggest.

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Is this guy, in some important way, not self-aware?

As for the article, I am more with Churchland et al. over Nagel and Searle, in the sense that I agree that our “mental states” — desires, feelings, “logic,” even the sense of self-awareness itself, are probably merely folk descriptions of neuronal-electrical activity in our physical brains.

Now of course they still matter deeply to us — we desire, we feel, we are aware of ourselves! — but that doesn’t mean that they need mystify us and stump us with an “explanatory gap.” The experience of being a bumblebee is (we may imagine) a series of urges to fly straight to pollen sources, to return to the hive, to jitter in a way to convey information to other bumblebees. The experience of a human is a series of urges to make human-like noises, causing reactions in other humans, to eat, to walk, to have sexual intercourse, etc.. We can call it our vaunted “consciousness” but as far as I can see it really is no more than the record we keep of these urges. I am unimpressed by consciousness.

And it’s not only philosophers who dwell on this word too much, in my view. People who practice meditation, are similarly hung-up on consciousness. They often claim to want to escape thoughts and experience “pure consciousness”. But I am suspicious that such a state is merely another record of neuronal activity, this time oriented towards an intuitive unity of physical inputs and other brain activity (perhaps lessoning the left hemisphere’s role and listening to the right hemisphere). It is no more transcendent or “pure” than anything else (though it certainly feels good and may be a worthy goal to pursue for promoting happy and peaceful behavior).

I do think, like Churchland, that the whole language around this is a residue of supernaturalism and religion, artifacts of our history.

But I am open to the possibility that I just don’t see it. In which case my resistance to the mystery about “consciousness” is interesting in itself. What threat would it pose to me if I were to acknowledge a problem here with my materialist/naturalist view?

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Ivan then wrote back again:

Thanks for your thoughts and, yes, I think on this one we are going to have to agree to disagree!  I’m admittedly hung up on consciousness – my feelings, thoughts, sensations, my internal experience of color and awareness of the information I process, my very sense of self – all seem to me to possess a distinctive qualitative reality and to constitiute the most important (real) feature of my existence…

Also, the “explanatory gap” strikes me as philosophically self-evident: conceptually, I don’t see an explanatory bridge from brain to consciousness any more than I do from brick to consciousness. One strategy, of course, is to invoke the concept of a “brute fact” – i.e., it is just a fact of nature that when certain stuff (organic chemicals, etc.) combine in a certain way, you get consciousness. But brute facts are not only philosophically unsatisfying, they also seem to me an admission if ignorance. Another strategy (Nagel’s most recent one) is the suggestion that our current picture of the physical world is incomplete and it is this incompleteness that bars (conceptually speaking) the reduction of mind to brain. That certainly seems to me a real possibility (but certainly NOT any kind of argument for the existence of God in any remotely religious sense).

At the end of the day, my sense is that there are aspects of the world that may forever remain mysteries (brute facts, I suppose) to our species. I think consciousness may be one of them, but perhaps even gravity falls into this category (attraction from a distance – really? How does that work? It just does, and so we have an incredibly powerful explanatory model that allows us to make successful predictions). In this somewhat broader context, I highly recommend Chomsky’s article, “Mysteries of Nature” (click here to read)  published in the Journal of Philosophy and available online.

And yes – this is certainly interesting stuff to ponder …

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To which I responded again:

Hey Ivan,

Thanks for writing back again on this with more clarification of your thoughts.

I understand that you have the feel of a distinctive quality to your self-awareness or “consciousness”. (So do I, you will be reassured to hear. Have no fear of those frequent scenes in sci-fi movies where the trusted companion is revealed to be a cyborg, with circuits and wires under his skin instead of the stuff you expect.)

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But I still don’t understand the threshold difference between our responses to this feeling. Why should this distinctive feeling of consciousness call out, to you, for some additional “whole is more than the sum of its parts” explanation? To me it is unclear, even, what you are looking for… Something more than your brain and its activity?

By the way, what do you think of the analogy a neuroscientist used when interviewed (click here to read)… He said that, to him, wanting to separate “consciousness” from the physical parts of your brain is akin to wanting to separate “motion” from the parts of your car. You’re never going to find a separate thing: motion is just what your car DOES when you have those physical parts working together. In the same way, isn’t it an answer to say that consciousness is just what your brain does when you have all these neural networks working together, sending electrical/chemical signals around in response to internal and external stimuli?

I do agree that there are many things that we are never going to understand, due to the limitations of our particular mental make-up (adapted for survival as medium-sized, predatory mammals living in grasslands). I wish we could see like hawks, think like dolphins… Being human, we are astonishingly good at social interaction, and we have had surprising success in understanding the mechanics of the physical world around us (gravity being an exception, as you point out). Still, we are unavoidably limited by our finite capacities. So yes, that could be one way to explain why we can’t understand and define consciousness… 

But another is just to say that there is, simply, no additional, supra-material thing to grasp. Yes, there is the subjective experience of each brain (actually, each hemisphere of the brain separately, as experiments show!). But we already have methods of conveying that. Art describes that subjective experience quite well — hence the shiver you get when you encounter it. The experience of listening to music can even capture subjectivity without words. Aren’t these enough? Why do you seek an observer-independent explanation? (Well I agree it would certainly be interesting, if possible — but I suspect there would be little to say except that which we already know, namely that “consciousness” is a feeling, the feeling of being present.)

I suspect that this difference between our outlooks (as esoteric as it is; some in the group, I am sure, will feel our difference is a case of intellectually splitting hairs), will keep coming back to interest us as we try to grope our way towards a non-supernatural approach to meaning.

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To which Ivan responded one last time (in CAPITALs — though, mind you, he was not shouting, only differentiating between my email and his response):

On the question I posed on why he wanted some “additional” explanation, other than a biological one (what he refers to as a “brute fact”)…

I’M NOT LOOKING FOR AN “ADDITIONAL” EXPLANATION – JUST AN EXPLANATION. THE INTERNAL WORLD OF CONSCIOUSNESS, WITH ITS DISTINCTIVE QUALITATIVE FEEL, IS AS MUCH A PART OF THE NATURAL ORDER AS THE PLANT ON MY DESK; HENCE, IT TOO CRIES OUT FOR EXPLANATION. THE ELECTRICAL AND CHEMICAL ACTIVITY THAT TAKES PLACE IN MY NERVOUS SYSTEM SEEMS TO BELONG TO AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT REALM. IT IS CLEARLY RELATED TO CONSCIOUSNESS, BUT EXACTLY HOW THE TWO WORLDS INTERLOCK IS WHAT WE DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND AND THE PROBLEM IS THAT SIMPLY PILING UP MORE KNOWLEDGE RE THE TYPE OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITIES THAT TAKE PLACE IN THE BRAIN, AND LEARNING ABOUT ADDITIONAL “CORRELATIONS” BETWEEN BRAIN AND MIND, WON’T CHANGE THAT ONE BIT. YOUR LAST SENTENCE REMINDS ME OF A FAMOUS ARTICLE IN THIS AREA: “WHAT MARY DIDN’T KNOW” (click to read). MARY IS A COLORBLIND SCIENTIST WHO KNOWS EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW ABOUT THE BRAIN. ONE DAY HER COLORBLINDNESS IS CURED AND SHE EXPERIENCES THE COLOR RED FOR THE FIRST TIME. DID SHE LEARN SOMETHING NEW? OF COURSE. DOES THIS SUPPORT THE POSITION THAT BRAIN AND MIND ARE NOT IDENTICAL – I THINK SO.

(But do we need something additional to explain, for example, the feeling of anger? Or the taste of a mango? They are “part of the natural order” as well, aren’t they? Why is “consciousness” different for you — that is, why does it require a deeper explanation than other mental states? — Tom)

Then Ivan responded to the analogy that consciousness arises from the physical parts of a brain… like motion arises from the physical components of a car.

I DON’T FIND THIS LINE OF REASONING CONVINCING AT ALL. I DON’T FIND IT HAS ANY REAL EXPLANATORY POWER. IS THE ARGUMENT NOW THAT CONSCIOUSNESS IS BRAIN ACTIVITY OR THAT IT RESULTS FROM BRAIN ACTIVITY (VERY DIFFERENT POSITIONS)?? ALSO, MY EXPERIENCE IS THAT NEUROSCIENTISTS HAVE A HARD TIME UNDERSTANDING THE PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUE AND A TENDENCY TO DIMINISH THE SIGNIFICANCE OF QUESTIONS AND PHENOMENA THAT DON’T FIT EASILY WITHIN THEIR CURRENT EXPLANATORY MODEL. IN ANY CASE, YOU DON’T NEED TO GO TO THE NEUROLOGIST. SEARLE TRIED ARGUING THAT CONSCIOUSNESS STANDS IN THE SAME RELATION TO THE BRAIN AS DIGESTION TO THE STOMACH. BUT AGAIN, I’M NOT CONVINCED AT ALL. THE STOMACH DIGESTS FOOD BY CRUSHING IT UP AND SECRETING CHEMICALS THAT BREAK IT DOWN (OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT …) – ALL OF WHICH IS CONCEPTUALLY CLEAR AND SO PHILOSOPHICALLY UNPROBLEMATIC. THE STRUCTURE AND ACTIVITY OF THE STOMACH “SLOTS” EASILY INTO THE PHENOMENON OF DIGESTION. I DON’T SEE THAT THE SAME HOLDS FOR THE STRUCTURE AND ACTIVITYOF THE BRAIN AND THE PHENOMENON OF CONSCIOUSNESS.

THERE DOES SEEM TO BE SOMETHING ADDITIONAL TO GRASP – ADDITIONAL TO THE WORLD OF PARTICLES AND FORCES AS CURRENTLY DESCRIBED BY PHYSICISTS: THE WORLD OF CONSCIOUSNESS. THIS WORLD WILL ALWAYS HAVE A PRIVATE, SUBJECTIVE CHARACTER, BUT DOESN’T ANY GENUINE EXPLANATION OF HOW WE HAVE CONSCIOUSNESS NEED TO BE PUBLIC AND OBJECTIVE (AND SO OBSERVER-INDEPENDENT)?

(I don’t think it does. That is a theological habit, I think, which is still ingrained in all of us: looking for a universal basis for things (Plato’s ideas, for example, or the major monotheistic religions’ versions of an unfathomable God). In the same way we still have the habit of looking for universally applicable or “categorical” moral or aesthetic rules — when our own private and subjective (and often ad hoc) ones do quite well, in most cases. — Tom)

I JUST WANT A CONCEPTUALLY CLEAR EXPLANATION OF HOW CONSCIOUSNESS CAN EXIST IN THE WORLD AS CURRENTLY DESCRIBED BY PHYSICS. IT MAY BE THAT CONSCIOUSNESS IS BEST SEEN AS A KIND OF COUNTER-EXAMPLE THAT SHOWS THE PHYSICIST’S CURRENT PICTURE IS LACKING SOMETHING. THAT IS NAGEL’S VIEW. WHY SHOULDN’T THIS BE THE CASE?

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With that, Ivan and I agreed that we were getting perilously close to reaching the limits of what we could accomplish with an email exchange — and we would have to carry our concerns into a person-to-person conversation sometime!

Thinking About Humans and Animals

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2014

by Heather Clague

It is interesting that the question of consciousness comes up when thinking about human exceptionalism, but I agree with you that there is ample evidence that many animals have forms of consciousness that we can easily recognize as sentient experience worthy of our empathic inquiry and moral consideration.  We cannot rest arguments that humans are unique on the presence of conscious experience.  Also, even if we do have mental capacities not shared by other animals, as you have pointed out, every species is ‘special’ in it’s own way, and it would be a mistake to valorize our particular peacock tails over the miraculous adaptations of each species to its particular set of selection pressures.

But if I am ready to say that we aren’t aesthetically or morally special, there is no denying our exceptionality in terms of evolutionary success.   We have the largest biomass of any single terrestrial species, and if we include the biomass of domesticated animals, humans and the animals under our dominion have the greatest biomass of any species on Earth. Is it not reasonable to wonder at what about ourselves has allowed this to happen?  Our cognitive and social-emotional capacities may not seem that much different than those of chimps, but whatever that difference is has been enough to allow us to swarm and drive them nearly to extinction.

I believe the capacity that has allowed us to separate ourselves from other creatures is our particular capacity to cooperate.  This ability emerges from an interrelated set of faculties that extend beyond mere consciousness, and include language, sophisticated empathy and motivation for intersubjective sharing, moral sense and cultural transmission.  We can find animal examples of these individual skills, but none come close to the degree manifest by humans.  At some point, a large enough quantitative difference becomes a qualitative difference.  Had humans not stumbled into settled agriculture and the industrial revolution and taken over the world, I do not believe that chimps would have done so.  Planet of the Apes was never a possibility.  It is ironic, then, that the capacity that has allowed us to achieve near complete domination is based on our ability to feel that this domination may be wrong.

Is this group then not an opportunity to articulate a sophisticated morality that appreciates our mental capacities and acknowledges our modern social and environmental perils?  We are living at densities our brains and bodies did not evolve to handle, and we are most certainly altering the globe through climate change and mass extinction.  We evolved an ability to feel concern for others to serve our reproductive self interest; I take the view that effective ethical behavior is a form of enlightened self interest. Should we extend our moral concern to non-human creatures and the environment?  To people we don’t know living places we will never visit?  I’m afraid we have to; it’s become a small world, and as this horrific ebola outbreak is showing us, what goes around comes around.

On Théodore Monod

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 31, 2014

by Florence Joliff

[In our October meeting, Florence mentioned to the group that in thinking about the prehistoric era she had been led to the writings of Théodore Monod, a French explorer, anthropologist, poet and writer. I encouraged her to share on the blog some of what she had read… if she would be so kind as to translate it into English (most of his works are not translated). Florence sent the following by email.]

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Théodore Monod: anthropologue, explorer, poet, writer

He wrote many books about his various explorations, always deeply interested in humankind, the definition of “progress”, and also obviously the ” modern” human relationship to nature.

He was an incredible nature lover and a great poet, also!
He conducted many observations, explorations, and trips in the Sahara desert ( and others) and found many paleolitic objects, paintings, etc.

His books are fantastic and a true pleasure to read over long period of time… I just wish he was translated in English! (other than the one book Desert).

Basic summary of some of his ideas:

Monod enumerates three steps/stages in recent humankind evolution:

1. The original relationship of man among other animals (magical and symbolic links with nature, and he argues that it is appropriate to still have some today);
2. Then the “divorce” with nature, leading to the “progress” of human power, rationalisation and domination etc. (He also recognizes the great steps in science);
3. And finally, our current “reconciliation need ” (this was my favorite part of his writings), namely, our need for a new way of thinking. Very similar to us!

SOME KEY SENTENCES I have extracted from his books:
To lead to the area of ” big stable joys”, humankind must be freed … by (among other elements) its sympathy, and establish a system of new moral values based on a general respect of life under all its shapes( animals, plants, living bodies).
He is inspired by Albert Schweitzer ‘s philosophy (in 1915) and also, briefly, Albert Einstein’s writings and thoughts…
Modern life, he held, must not be based on material comfort and individualism.

From homo “sapiens” to today homo “economicus”, all moral codes have been defined by religions and ideological systems.

Today humankind is facing new problems and issues generated  by the religion of progress, material profit, and “technolatrie”.

We must find again the “unity of things and living beings” with key words like: solidarity, communion, sympathy (empathy for others/ for all living beings)….
We must create a moral view as strong and demanding as our modern power. Otherwise we are in big danger of disappearing …
We must reconcile being and having.

He also makes reference to Victor Hugo very often: celui qui ceuille une fleur derange une etoile…
He wishes to live his life as his friend Teilhard (who had two passions: the love of science and the abiding question of god):  more eupraxie than orthodoxie: more rectitude of conduct than adherence to dogma.

Not sure this is clear Tom …and not perhaps very loyal to Théodore Monod (I have made a very approximate translation: Théodore Monod is much more complex and beautiful and simple in his writings).

Why the World Needs a Non-Supernatural Approach to Big Questions

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 4, 2014

I had two recent reminders of how important it is for us and others to develop a decidedly non-supernatural approach to all the big questions of life, and I thought I would share them with the group.

Reminder #1

Over recent weeks, on his popular blog The Daily Dish, the writer Andrew Sullivan has engaged his readers in a conversation about Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (a book I found well worth reading, by the way).

In an early post, Sullivan, who is Catholic, discusses his and Harris’ different understandings of the tranquil feeling of “self-transcendence” that can arise during meditation or prayer (or even, unbidden, at other times).

In his usual concise manner, Sullivan lays out their opposing views:

“For Sam, this is evidence merely that meditation works, that stilling unending thoughts enables a person to live mindfully rather than to experience life as one goddamned distraction after another. He sees this as proof of the absence of a self and a way to live with clarity and calm as we are beset by feelings and passions, good and bad.

But the Pope suggests another way of seeing this: not as proof of the absence of self so much as the simplicity and calm of being oneself with God. It is a mysterious way of being, this communion with God. And maybe, experientially, it is indistinguishable from Sam’s meditative clarity and occasional epiphanies. But in it, for a Christian like me, the self does not disappear. It is merely overwhelmed by divine love and thereby fully becomes itself. In fact, this is the core mystery of our faith: communion with something greater and other than us, and a communion marked by love. In fact, something even more miraculous than that: a divine love that actually loves you uniquely.”

This irritated me.

It irritated me enough that I tapped out a quick email on my iPhone, while the kids jabbered and giggled around me.

I’m happy to say that Sullivan was good enough to include my contribution in his ongoing discussion with readers. (I am the “Another is more critical” in this post (click here to read).) Here’s what I wrote in full:

I love both you and Sam. I really do. I’m with him on the dangers and damage wrought by religion. With you on most political issues. But on this question from Waking Up, regarding the nature of the so-called “selfless” state of mind human beings sometimes experience during meditation or prayer, I’m afraid you are both wrong.

Andrew, why do you both seek transcendence so badly? For what you feel, what we all feel in these oceanic moments, is neither an experience of being flooded by God’s love (your view) or a glimpse into the underlying “selflessness” of consciousness (Sam’s view).

It is simply one way – one particularly harmonious and happy way! – that our particular species of primate experiences neuronal/electrical activity in our brains. We may speculate that meditation, prayer and the like probably have the effect of quieting activity in the left hemisphere and facilitating a more direct experience of the intuitive, non-verbal right hemisphere … something like that …Whatever it is, it is most certainly NOT anything transcendent, nor showing us a “truth” about the selfless nature of the universe. It is part of what our limited biology, fashioned by millions upon millions of years of adaptation, does.

Why is it so hard for you, and now Sam too, to accept your body and brain for what they are: your ONLY portal to experience, limited as they are, sometimes impulsive and directed, sometimes undifferentiated and peaceful, but always YOURS, beautiful and mortal and precious.

It is always self, and that is okay. Andrew, I say lovingly: go with the love you feel, and you can leave out the “God” part. To Sam I want to say: go with the love you feel, and you can leave out the incoherent idea of some “selflessness” uncannily experienced by the self.

155 years after On the Origin of Species and this is still hard for people to accept. But once you do it is clarifying, and liberating. It’s all natural, all animal – all the way down.

This may sound familiar to members of our group? You know my rants already.

Both Andrew, a Catholic, and Sam, an atheist, seem to be hung up on looking for a way “out” of self. As you know, I think that’s an old habit, inherited from religion.

In The Old New Way, as I see it, we are looking to find a way in — to be fully accepting of our place on this planet and in our bodies (with all of our limited cognitive capacities and conflicting moral drives and rapidly shifting emotional responses).

We want to accept ourselves as we are now. That, I think, is the right place, the only place, from which we can begin asking interesting questions about how to conduct our lives.

Beautiful. Mortal. Precious. Isn’t that enough?

Reminder #2

I had the pleasure of reading this week the biologist E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Meaning of Human Existence.

It was affirming how much Wilson is doing the same thing in this book that we are attempting in The Old New Way.

He begins his argument with an emphasis on primatology and prehistory (closely tracking the discussion we had in our first meeting), and then he takes off from there, trying to articulate a new perspective just as we are.

Here is what Wilson writes in the final chapter:

“The perquisite for attaining the goal is an accurate self-understanding. So, what is the meaning of human existence? I’ve suggested that it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and… also what we will choose to become.”

But he knows that this will not be easy:

“The problem holding everything up thus far is that Homo sapiens is an innately dysfunctional species. We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence are increasingly a hindrance to global urban and technoscientific society…”

And he ends with an acknowledgement that any threat to the supernatural claims of the world’s major religions will be perceived as an attack, totally out of bounds, even taken as an expression of a “phobia”…

To this familiar response, he answers with an eloquent line:

“The idea is to place the personal dignity of the believer above the dignity of the belief that demands unquestioning obedience… That would be a true cry of freedom.”

I liked that.

A cry for freedom. Yes! That’s one way to see what we are up to.

Seeking a more accurate self-understanding. That too.

And finally, an acceptance that our lives are… beautiful, mortal, precious.

Can this “mortal” aspect of our lives be part of a net positive, when all is considered together? It is traditionally seen as a curse, a doom, a threat  — hence fables about an after-life. This, I think, is a crucial question that we will consider at our upcoming meeting (on Epicureanism).

Let’s keep at it. We will get somewhere, I am sure of it, one meeting at a time.