Intelligent Design, Mind, and Liberation

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A friend asked me about a criticism his friend had about the book “Beyond Biocentrism” by Robert Lanza and Robert Berman. Isn’t it just intelligent design? The same questioned could be asked of the metaphors Bernardo Kastrup uses in his books on idealism and in the Mahayana Buddhist formulation of Mind Only, the Lankavatara and similar Sutras, the Zen Master saying: “Mind is Buddha”: is it just intelligent design, a way of sneaking religious dogma past science and reason?

Fair question. The answer is simple: no.

How so?

  1. First, intelligent design is inherently dualistic. Something is designing the Universe from the outside. That isn’t Biocentrism (or Zen).
  1. Second, it isn’t a question of whether in our scale of living, in our experience of time and space, in the relative (that we chant in Zen is identical with the absolute, and is not to be denied), Darwinian evolution occurs.

The evidence for evolution is as clear as any observation you use to navigate your world. There is descent with modification. Things that are better fit to their environment, whether crystals or other chemical reactions in a solution, genetic programming, ideas, tend to thrive and persist and multiply and so tend to be found in that environment. It is really obvious. The evidence we share a common ancestor with other primates, then before that other mammals then before that, then reptiles, then fish, then sponges, then bacteria…etc. back to the first replicating organic forms is just as clear as anything can be. To deny the evidence of evolution is to deny geology, paleontology, physics, biology and chemistry.

Lanza and Berman say that explicitly; from “Beyond Biocentrism” page 93:

“Randomness is also a central key of evolution, where it works splendidly. Darwin wasn’t just whistling in the wind with his natural selection… Evolution works, and it’s based on random mutations coupled with natural selection.”

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There are other quotes, but lets just leave it there. Microphone dropped, we’re done. You can read “Biocentrism” and “Beyond Biocentrism” for more. The question comes up, I believe, in the mind of my friend’s friend and others because Biocentrism, and others, including me, question whether that mechanism and view, marvelous and true as it is, sums up, is foundational, and contains all that can be known of the nature of life and consciousness and of everything, or is it secondary, an observation of local function.

Is mechanism foundational or is consciousness? Is it energy interactions that create mind or the other way around?

Which is upside down thinking?

  1. Third, be careful with words and how they are used. Is intelligent design so bad? Does it fit? Be open-minded about it.

Breaking down intelligent and design:

Is “Mind” intelligent? Is Nature, the Universe, the Cosmos, the Mind of God, if you lean that way, “intelligent”? Well, as opposed to what? That is setting up a false dichotomy. Can the Universe, can Mind, be stupid? Intelligent vs. dumb by what standard? Smart as opposed to what other level of intellectual function for the Cosmos? What test do you apply to the Totality to see if it is intelligent? Whether or not what evolves, what is there, works for you? Does that make things smart or good as opposed to dumb or bad? Is life on earth, is humankind, are you, really the measure of all things? Now that’s arrogance.

And the concept of design implies a set preconceived outcome, like an engineering project; one designs a plane that flies and a dam that holds water. This is not how I would see the functioning of non-dualistic Mind. That would seem like Cosmic Mental Masturbation and a real waste of time and energy.

  1. Fourth and finally, what I think is the real issue when the question of intelligent design comes up, is that historically intelligent design is a term chosen by those who wish to sneak religion, particularly deistic or theistic religion, particularly scripture based or dogmatic faiths, into the classroom past the US Constitution. That isn’t the goal of Mind Only non-dualistic teachings, at least not as far as I can tell. It certainly isn’t what I have in mind!

But it is a critically important issue, especially now in the world of fake news, real news being accused of being fake news by the insane man in the White House and his horrid minions, the elevation of alternative facts, and the horrible situation of willfully ignorant, biased science and education deniers in control of the very institutions that are supposed to use science, education and other knowledge, to protect us!

I get it. Scary stuff.

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Religion and spirituality have been weaponized. Greed and ignorance has been institutionalized. Insanity encouraged as long as it makes you feel strong and in some weird kind of control despite all evidence to the contrary. Sad and bad; bigly bad!

While we will always evaluate what we see as facts through our perspective and world-view, the level of ad absurdum that this has been brought to and used and abused by those in power, by the theocrats and right wing, the racists and corporate stooges, is truly dangerous and far from any value system I can abide by.

From my perspective nothing about Zen, Biocentrism, Kastrup’s metaphors and myths of non-dual Mind Only idealism, does away with science and facts. Lanza and Berman are scientists. Kastrup deals with computers. I am a medical scientist and physician. Speaking for myself, I deal with scientific facts, including the implications of evolution, every day. I would deny them no more than I would deny that we can describe mathematically why a plane flies, or that I better hit the brakes if a car swerves in front of me, or that a rock is different from a potato of the same basic size, shape and color.

Evolution, climate change, pollution, germ theory, the understanding that weather doesn’t go bad to punish us for not following biblical injunctions about sexual orientation? No denial! I’m with you!

The value of economic justice and dignity over religious dogma? Sure.

The importance of social justice and art in a sane society? You bet.

The risk of fear, greed and superstition and the need to be concerned about religious institutions forcing themselves on the community as tools of control and the horrid judging of non-believers? Yep, a YUGE concern.

What about willful ignorance of “worldly matters”? That is a very common attitude in monotheistic traditions. And it is clearly ascendant in some quarters right now, including some very powerful quarters, and has long been exploited by theocrats and the greedy and the fearful. A friend sent me a bible quote he was brought up with decrying worldly knowledge. After all, dogmatic traditions can’t abide by any questioning of the truth of their teachings, their sacred texts; they fall apart too easily.

A kind thought is in the past many teachings about the world and dogmatic philosophies were indeed bogus. Science wasn’t really invented, at least not as we understand it, and not in any reliably functioning way, until way after these traditions were founded and those texts written.

But I doubt they didn’t think the technology of chariots was real in ancient times, that is was a matter of religious dogma whether the chariot wheel should be round or square. Or whether Roman aqueducts were based on the observations of the way water flows rather than opinions and religious dogma at the time of the writing of the Christian texts. The question wasn’t whether facts count, I suspect (or am I being too kind?) but the implications of facts and “worldly” philosophies, what we would now call the metaphysics, and just how deep some observations and ideas and ideals should go in determining our over-arching world-view.

I believe that in Biocentrism and perhaps Bernardo Kastrup’s formulations, among others, there is a recognition of what in Zen we call the identity of the relative and absolute, or as the wisdom tradition of the Heart Sutra and the Nalanda sages of the Mahadyamika “emptiness” tradition say, the identity of form and emptiness. It is similarly embedded in Nagarguna’s two truths.

Buddhist teaching, as I understand it, is not to deny what is in front of you. You occupy the ground you stand on, you don’t indulge in denial and wishful thinking, and you most certainly don’t try and get the Universe to become small enough to be bite sized, easily digestible, and to fit your idea of how it should be.

That’s kind of why in Zen we keep eyes open just a bit when we meditate: we do not shut out the world entirely and abide in our delusional distorted thinking in the darkness behind our eyelids. That’s why Zen talks about the cessation of notions, as the title of some early texts has been translated. Not that you cease observing and using your mind, but you aren’t ruled by your ideas and concepts. Intellect as tool, not master.

The intellect certainly is a tool we must use; it that warns us against demagoguery, against tyrants, against geed and superstition, and allows us to understand the real nature of hate and fear and climate change and pollution, so we can try to find ways to “intelligently” live our compassionate practices. Compassion needs intellect; without understanding compassion is not possible.

Is science inherently dualistic?

No.

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A magnetic dipole has a north and a south pole, a kind magnetic charge. Opposite poles, opposite charges, attract, same poles repel, just like + and – charges in electricity. But no matter how small you cut it, even if to the size of a subatomic particle, you can’t separate the two poles of a magnet. There isn’t a north only magnet like there is a + or – only electrically charged particle. It is one system. A kind of non-duality with dual characteristics, a wee bit like the identity of the relative and absolute.

 If you aren’t stuck on the existence of an outside entity, an all powerful Deity who is separate, designing and running the show, it isn’t even an issue. How can there be a Cosmos and something outside it? Scientific materialists believe in a kind of non-dualism; after all, the scientific Holy Grail is one unified force, a single Theory of Everything (TOE) or Grand Unified Theory (hence my use of GUT in Zengut, a play of words on grand unified theory and that we need to move from our center, our guts, the hara in zen, tandien in Chinese).

The real difference between scientific materialism and Biocentrism or Zen and others like Bernardo Kastrup is whether the mind or consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of neurons or other information systems in living beings or is the quality of the Cosmos, the foundation, the true nature of everything, Mind?

Clearly there is mind as brain function. In Buddhism that mind, the one in your brain, is a form of perception like seeing, hearing etc. The brain is another sense organ, like your retina. The metaphors are that we, as individuals, including our brains, are as a wave of mind in the ocean of Mind, a current of consciousness in the sea of Consciousness, an eddy of individual life in the stream Life, or as Kastrup describes in great detail, whirlpools interacting in the substance of Mind. Not separate from the Whole, yet somehow individuated by momentum and local conditions, as a wave is not the ocean but the functioning of the ocean. The wave isn’t not the ocean, either. It is not separate from the ocean. But it doesn’t encompass the ocean. So too for the eddies in the ground of the stream and Bernardo Kastrup’s whirlpools in liquid mercury.

Remember, these are just metaphors, myths in a sense, as Bernardo reminds us, as he spends hundreds of pages spinning elegant and complex metaphors and myths!

Do our myths serve to illuminate, or are we again just chasing Laplace’s phantoms, the chimera of our projections?

The question is only whether those metaphors, limited and constrained as all metaphors are by our parochial conditioned day-to-day experience, our embodied brains, our  language, the momentum of karma, of contingencies of the relative in the absolute, are touching a truth that scientific materialists don’t buy, that science is not equipped perhaps to evaluate given the limited tools of the intellect, but may be true nonetheless, that Mind is all there is.

I would suggest that the point of these metaphors is that contingent events, energies that evolve, the momentum that creates waves, whirlpools, eddies in consciousness, are not different than or separate from the substrate of Mind, but are an expression of its functioning.

Can I explain where the momentum comes from? Is there a beginning or end?

Can I prove Mind Only, non-dualism?

Proof? No. You have to do that for yourself. It’s your mind.

As Lanza and Berman suggest in Biocentrism, don’t over think it. That is why in their books they spend a lot of ink on the paradoxes of logic the Ancient Greeks enjoyed. It is the limits of language and our small perspective and parochial brains that lead us to metaphor and myth. Sometimes art and poetry are more insightful than math.

As Buddha is supposed to have said, some questions have different answers depending who is asking and why they are asking. And some questions just don’t tend to clarify are not worth asking.

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I agree with my friends who think that quantum mechanics and other scientific observations are consistent with Mind Only non-dualism, and modern science certainly implies that the Universe, that time and space, are not what they seem to be based on our limited perceptions and logic and experience. But given that we are trying to grasp the Vastness with the Tiny Trumpian Hands of the tools of the intellect and perception, I am not convinced that modern science and logic rises, or can rise, to the level of proof.

And we will probably die, as billions have, before we get to a scientific GUT. And if and when we do formulate a GUT, we will still not be satisfied because it won’t change who we are. Despite any announcement of a lovely formula or proof of string theory or whatever, we still will crave attention and fear death if we are stuck in dualistic thinking.

So for me, Mind Only non-dualism works. It as deep and clear as I, so far, can get. It doesn’t’ obviate scientific observations and a clear intellect.

It essentially goes to the Buddha was supposed to have said: it’s a matter of upside down thinking:

Are you the functioning of One Mind, or the accident of energy fields and emergent phenomena?

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Have fun with it. Try on a different perspective for size. It won’t require you stop believing in Darwinian evolution, gun control, the value of data, justice, art, germ theory or climate change.

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Case 30 in the Zen Koan collection the “Gateless Gate”:

Taibai asked Baso [Mazu Daoyi, 709-788] in all earnestness, “What is Buddha?” Baso answered, “This very Mind is Buddha.”

Wave and ocean, whirlpool and mercury sea.

Case 33 in the Zen Koan collection the “Gateless Gate”:

A monk asked Baso in all earnestness “What is Buddha”? Baso replied “no mind, no Buddha.”

Don’t get hung up on concepts; the ceasing of notions.

In the Taisho for case 30 it says that someone told Taibai that Baso said this about no mind, no Buddha. Taibai replied: “He may say, ‘no mind no Buddha’, but for me it is ‘the very mind is Buddha’ until the end of the world.”

You might ask: The end of which world?

A friend asked me why I meditate. To get quiet and see whazzup, I told him.

For all of this, whatever modern science implies, whether you like Mind only, or not, care about ideas concerning why to meditate, or not, we owe no undying allegiance to any concept if we are to be honest without self-deception (a goal in science and Zen).

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We may seek Truth, but above that, we seek liberation. Don’t get seduced or distracted by spiritual or scientific stories, unless they inspire and help. I started blogging when Bob Lanza asked me about a TOE of Zen. In response I wrote several years ago:

You are the Universe unfolding [evolving, if you will]

Mind evolving

No separation

No beginning, no end

My understanding hasn’t changed much, though it has deepened. But understanding, deepening or not, isn’t everything.

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That’s why I meditate. That’s why I have a practice. That’s why wrote a myth, a small novel for older kids (and of course anybody who likes myths) I have mentioned before called “Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World.”

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After going on quests in modern day LA to free a girl, to liberate her spirit, and in his dreams in China of 1300 years ago, Aidan meets with Wise-and-Able (the Zen master Hui Neng, the guy who, when monks were debating whether flags or wind moves, or both, said: Mind moves):

“This whole dream thing is totally crazy!” Aidan blurted out. “These aren’t like normal dreams at all. I guess I’m asking, what’s a dream and what’s real? I don’t think I know anymore!”

“In our tradition of the Way of Wisdom we say that all things you can touch, or see, or hear, all things that happen in space and time, are like a dream. They are from your mind. That is something like the story of the butterfly and the old sage, of course. The sage dreamed he was a butterfly, but when he woke up he wondered: Was he a butterfly dreaming he was a sage? You might say there is no need to wonder! No need at all! After all, sleeping, not sleeping, what difference does it make?”

Aidan was upset. “Then nothing is real? It’s all a dream? Everything? Even when I think I’m awake?”

“Butterfly, your mind is real. In the Chinese language heart and mind are the same word. Caring and kindness are real. You can care and love and be kind in a dream. Ask yourself: Don’t you always seem to be awake and aware in what you call your ‘normal’ dreams? Aren’t you aware right now?”

“Sure,” Aidan agreed. “I’m aware, but am I dreaming? Am I awake? Is it real?”

“What does it really mean to be awake? You are truly awake when you are not distracted. Sleeping, not sleeping, either way, wherever and whenever and whoever you are, just pay attention. Be aware. Don’t be ruled by greed, fear, or anger. See your mind, your heart in everything. That, my good friend, is our teaching of the Way of Wisdom.”

Wise-and-Able rang a little bell and bowed from the waist, his palms pressed together. Aidan stood up and then bowed to the ground like he did before Emperor Wu.

Wise-and-Able laughed. “Ah, my good friend, you are learning our ways. I accept that bow.”

Aidan was proud that he was learning their ways. He was proud that Wise-and-Able said so. As he stood up to leave the room, Wise-and-Able called out to him, “Did you like meeting my friends on the mountain path and at the beach? How about that puking trick? Works every time.”

Aidan had to laugh out loud. This crafty old Wise-and-Able knew more than he was letting on.

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Myths

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The Seven Sisters by an Australian Aboriginal artist based on her people’s  mythology

 

Yesterday I visited a friend of 40 years. I hadn’t seen him in years, but my GPS, depending on satellites and the math of relativity theory (that same set of equations that tell us a photon in a vacuum is in a universe of no time or space, well, forgetting about gravitational fields perhaps) got me right to his front door.

My friend, who is my age, has a kind of cancer that should have killed him and indeed was killing him. Chemotherapy failed, although it likely extended his life a bit. That was important because it enabled him to survive to try a new medication, one of the molecules scientists designed to fight cancer through sophisticated cellular targets. So far it is working; his tumors dissolved rapidly and as far as they can tell dramatically.

Science works. It is important not to subscribe to myths that will not allow for that. That is just crazy talk.

So my friend and I were talking about science and spirituality. He is very insightful, but he seemed to be stuck just a tiny bit on whether dark energy or dark matter was what one “sees” with the third eye in meditation.

Well, that’s why in Zen we tend to keep our eyes partly open when we meditate, so we don’t wade in the darkness and try to imbue it was some meaning that isn’t there!

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Certainly to a scientist that third eye and dark energy/matter connection doesn’t sound right. “Dark” in dark matter and energy just means they don’t give off any light to show us what and where this matter and energy is. We don’t have instruments that can measure them directly. So they are dark to our senses. We “see” dark matter and energy by their effects on the cosmos, like the apparent expansion of space and the ways galaxies turn. Specific, measurable effects, that is.

As I wrote before, for example in the recent post about not being seduced by the cool in quantum, using science this way can just add noise and be distracting.

On the other hand, someone recently suggested a book to me “More Than Allegory: On Religious Myth Truth and Belief” by Bernardo Kastrup. I am only about a third into it. I don’t agree with all I have read, but there is some insight there, and it helped me in talking to my friend.

After all, what is a myth but how the intellect deals with ineffable, what is beyond words? Are myths literally true? Of course they are not. But do they express Truth? Many times, yes, myths can reflect our conditioning, desires and delusions and show us an intuitive view of a road out of our grasping, fearful, limited brains. Not all myths do that, perhaps most, simply codify cultural norms or personal biases. The best myths are how we talk about what we can’t talk about. Myths aren’t only what we tell ourselves in the absence of fact, they are a place we go recognizing that language and intellect are limited by the scale they evolved at.

As written in the foundational Song Dynasty Zen poem “The Identity of the Relative and Absolute” in the translation we chant at Hazy Moon Zen Center (I believe by Maezumi Roshi via ZCLA) “reading words you should grasp the great reality.”

When I started writing non-fiction about science and Buddhism I called my work “Chasing Phantoms.” The title was based on the story of Laplace’s last words. Laplace was one of the top, if not the top, mathematician and scientist at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century; the “Enlightenment” in Europe. He was sometimes a theist, sometimes an atheist, always brilliant. On his deathbed somebody said to Laplace, “wow you must feel good about having been such a smart guy, accomplishing so much in math and science.”

Laplace replied, “Well, we do chase phantoms, don’t we.” Then he died.

The word he used for phantoms in French was “chimeras.” Stuff we cobble together. Stories we put together from different things in our experience, things we perceive, to make a new thing, a story. A myth.

So while I started suggested to my friend that he might not want to waste his time meditating by looking for dark energy in his third eye, I backed off a bit. Why not go there? Not a bad myth, though I am leery about mixing myth and specific scientific observations and terminology. Like a mixed metaphor, it doesn’t sound quite right to me. Also as a scientist, the situation is not symmetrical. Maybe I can mix science into myth, but it is not acceptable to mix myth into science, if you want your GPS to work, and if you don’t want to do stupid stuff like deny climate change, over population, pollution, thereby threatening civilization. Be careful you don’t lay your delusional myths born of greed anger and ignorance on science.

Yet I relish myth and I love science. Many of the sutras contain myths, stories that are not necessarily literally true but aren’t merely or solely allegories. The Avatamsaka sutra (and others, but I happen to be looking at that one) is full of elaborate images. There is’t a literal Mount Sumeru on earth.  I love referring to Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, and stories of her going down to hell hearing the cries of the suffering. I dig the story of Buddha putting up with his murderous cousin and trying to stop a war and failing. I act as if true, though I understand they are not “verified” by archaeology or written contemporaneous sources. They aren’t academic history or scientific experiments or even mathematical models. As Nyogen Roshi says, they are about you. Like myths.

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Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? I think so, but then again, really, who cares? Whatever myth you believe about who wrote the plays isn’t critical to me. If some new facts come to life, I’ll change the myth in my head. Until then Shakespeare is a myth that works for me. It doesn’t for others. Above all, the play’s the thing… (paraphrasing Shakespeare), and all these are just such as dreams are made of (oops did it again).

At its furthest reaches science is myth. That is, we take observations and cobble together a story that supplies a deeper understanding beyond the limits of data retrieval. That is just what myth does.

While I do not always realize I am myth making in my head, being a scientist and all, I very consciously wrote a myth when I wrote my novel for kids with the express purpose of creating chimeras full of heart and meaning (“Aidan and the Dragon Girl Save the World”). The novel I chose to write isn’t a work of science fiction (the obvious choice one might think given my background in medicine and science), it is a fantasy, a dream; it is a myth. And like myth, the story works best, as does all fiction, if you take it as true when you are reading it.

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Hakuin Zenji understood the value of myth

The tetralemma, basic to Buddhist logic says of such Truths, the chimeras, all belief systems the human mind cobbles together, including dogmatic Buddhism, not true, not not true, not both true and not true, not neither true nor not true.

That is Myth.

Now, in Zen, in the original, earliest Chan writings that we have, we are to cease notions. I get that. We are easily misled, easily seduced by stories and usually they are there to serve our egos. Dualistic distractions. So fine, maybe I am a bit off base here. On the other hand, as Nyogen says, much of practice consists of gimmicks designed  to shake up our parochial views, our day-to-day delusions, to push us beyond our conditioning. Maybe used right myth is upaya, skillful teaching. A piece of the raft we cling to to get to the other shore, in Buddhist jargon.

So if my friend likes shutting his eyes and picturing dark matter in the depth and silence of his third eye, maybe it’s not so bad. I mean, it could be worse, he could have decided string theory is the multidimensional Buddha.

 

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