Friday, June 07, 2013

On Being Alive

Time enough only for a dashed-off, stream-of-consciousness metaphysical bleat...

Being Alive: that's the title of our next chapter, which reflects on the question of What is life? It begins with Goethe's aphoristic attempt at an answer: "Where subject and object touch, there is life."

I would agree. Except this just kicks the definition down -- or up? -- the semantic road, since we then have to inquire into the meaning of "subject" and "object." I define the former as the cosmic interior, the latter as the cosmic exterior; or, one might say "vertical" and "horizontal."

Only living things have both an interior and an exterior, and the evolution of life charts the progressive exploration and expansion of the interior horizon. The human interior is much wider, higher, and deeper than that of any animal. And in the competition between human philosophies, the most expansive wins.

Now, having said that, Whitehead believed -- and science confirms -- that everything has an interior, however attenuated, otherwise it wouldn't be a thing.

In other words, everything is form + substance, else it couldn't exist. There can be no form without substance, nor any substance without form. It's just that the human form is both conscious of itself and capable of virtually infinite expansion.

Conversely a rock or a reptile or a Reverend Sharpton simply is what it is. (Although humans, and humans alone, can also be what they are not, which is a-hole nether slobject.)

I've been looking at this new Portrait of Aquinas, and he makes the same point vis-a-vis the human soul.

Note the predicate "human." For Aquinas, everything has a soul (i.e., form), for reasons alluded to above. Human beings are pure animal from top to bottom, except they have a very different sort of soul-interior, i.e., a rational one (and rational here implies much more -- and less -- than just logic).

Caldecott reviews some of the scientific explanations of Life. For example, life represents a "local reversal of entropy," which reduces us to mere fugitives from the second law of thermodynamics. And like the Mounties, entropy always gets its man.

A living thing resists entropy by maintaining an open system, exchanging matter, energy, or information with the environment. As it so happens, my doctoral dissertation was on just this subject (among others), applying insights from the study of dissipative structures to the mind. Little did I know that 25 years later I'd be blah-blah-blogging about it.

So, life is, in one sense, entropy-resistance, and as one wise revtile once put it, resist we much!

Caldecott poses a coonundrum for us: "Of what is death the absence?" "For someone facing the prospect of his own extinction, the answer must be more than a simple description of what happens when his body turns into a corpse."

For one thing, that's not death, that's after death. Can we even experience our own death? Apparently not, because only life can experience anything; in a sense life is experience.

For Aquinas, "a dead body is only a 'body' in a manner of speaking.... A dead person is not a person in the unfortunate condition of being dead. A dead person is what was once a person, but now is not.... Likewise, an animal body is what the corpse was before it died" (Turner).

So the corpse, really, is neither human body nor human soul, since those two always appear together.

So... what happened to Jesus on the cross? Did he experience death? This is discussed in chapter IX of this fascinating (and challenging) little book I'm reading, Jesus Purusha (which is later referenced in Caldecott's book). In it, the author asks how there can "be continuity of consciousness, if Jesus really died? Are we not demanding the logically impossible?"

No. Davie resolves this question by noting that the essence of Jesus's consciousness revolves around "surrender to the Father," so that "continuity of consciousness is preserved in the Other to whom the surrender is made."

It very much reminds me of Hindu and Buddhist doctrines to the effect that if we die before we die, then we do not die. What Davie is suggesting is that Jesus represents the real historical embodiment of the mythological dream. Much more on Davie's book later.

Way out of time. To be continued....


Rick said...

"if we die before we die"

I was keeping up until right there.

John Lien said...

I'm digging it. Like Spock did to Bones.

julie said...

if we die before we die

Let the dead bury the tenured. And/ or the Sharptons...

Coonincidentally, "Davie" is the town I'll be moving to in a couple of weeks; just got our financing finalized today. :)

mushroom said...

...a reptile or a Reverend Sharpton...

I suppose saying that is redundant is an insult to the reptilian community.

mushroom said...

And like the Mounties, entropy always gets its man.

If I had a band, they would be the Entropy Mounties.

mushroom said...

Davie resolves this question by noting that the essence of Jesus's consciousness revolves around "surrender to the Father," so that "continuity of consciousness is preserved in the Other to whom the surrender is made."

Jesus said that to save your life you have to lose it -- and I don't think He meant the way I usually do. That's the general, but the specific sounds like what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 15 when he is talking about resurrection, seed falling to the ground and dying and all.

In the middle of that, he says that Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy is death (or Death, for Pratchett). Once everything is subjected to Christ, He subjects Himself to the Father -- along, of course, with all that He has conquered.

So Jesus conquered death by dying and now death is no longer the enemy or even the enemy's tool. It all belongs to the Lord. Pretty cool.

Edited to add: That's probably totally incoherent to everybody else, but I know what I meant.

julie said...

Okay, so we know what to do with the dead and tenured. What about people from other planets? I only ask, because Chris Matthews clearly doesn't live on or come from this one...

Rick said...

"Let the dead bury the tenured."

Now it makes sense. It was the "reminds me of Hindu and Buddhist doctrines" that came before it so I had me wrong hat on for that one.

Thanks Julie!

ge said...

well the Dalai lama said he dies each time he deeply meditates.

'Love death therefore, and long eagerly for it. Die Daily.'

Rick said...

"Edited to add: That's probably totally incoherent to everybody else, but I know what I meant."

Now that I have my hat screwed on right, it's totally coherent.

As in the two kinds of death: death to the world or death to the spirit. Or living in the world or born of the spirit.

Gandalin said...

Hello Bob,

The definition of "life" is a very interesting subject, and very important.

I would like to mention three recent discussions of this subject, which I think are of interest.

In "Harmony and Conflict in the Living World" (2000) the naturalist Alexander Skutch points out that -in contrast to non-living matter, such as a stratum of rock, which is a continous band that is not divided into individuals, and which is not separated from the rest of the world around it by a skin- living things all exist as individuals, bounded by a skin or a membrane.

I think this is an important point.

Thomas Nagel's recent book "Mind and Cosmos" on the way that the existence of consciousness deflates the reductionist program - about which you wrote on March 25 - is also interesting.

And finally, the less drastic critique by Denis Noble in "The Music of Life," is also of interest.

River Cocytus said...

Guise, guise

St. Paul:

"I die daily."

Open Trench said...

Radical surrender is the only road. Eventually we discover this. It is only a matter of time, and there is nothing but time. Time enough for everyone.

ge said...

see how you like this eulogist of Bowden's explanation and
critique of Conservatism

Magnus Itland said...

What impresses me about Jesus Christ is not that he rose from the dead, but that he waited for the Father to raise him.

I mean, he told his trainees beforehand that he had the power to give up his life and the power to take it back. But at the critical moment, that was not what he did. Instead, he gave up his spirit to the Father who had, it seemed, forsaken him. It was the Father who raised him from the grave - by all accounts, Jesus did not actually take his life back, even though he had once been able to do so. Presumably he gave up that ability when he gave his spirits into the hands of the Father.