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22 Jul

Pillars of Creation

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / July 22, 2009 / 3 Comments

One of this blog’s first posts, Indra’s Net and the IGM, described a surprising correspondence between Mahayana Buddhist myth and actual findings in cutting-edge cosmology—the branch of physics exploring the creation of our universe. The post ended with this question: What happens when metaphors become measurables?

Subsequent posts have also explored the implications of modern science seeming to agree with ancient spirituality. Are these simply poetic interconnections, or might creative intuition deserve the same practical respect we give objective observation in decoding our world?

Today I found a particularly enchanting example of this question:

In Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, God is described as having 10 characteristics. These characteristics are called sefirot—Hebrew for ‘jewels’. The sefirot are arranged in three vertical pillars, as illustrated in this diagram, courtesy of Sunrise magazine:



sefirot




As indicated in the diagram, the three pillars have names: Mercy, Judgment, and Harmony. In creation, these become stations through which God’s generative energy travels as it descends from heaven to Earth. Helping along the miraculous transformation from pure spirit to physical matter, each pillar contributes the quality for which it’s named. The resulting creation is thus balanced and complete: mercy and judgment, harmonized.

The pillars can be thought of as factories, using divine light as their raw material, producing and refining everything we see and touch.

Contemporary cosmology also offers an explanation for how creation occurs, and it also involves factories of sorts—in this case, stars.

Stars are made of highly pressurized clouds of hydrogen gas and galactic dust. As a star forms, its hydrogen atoms collide, fusing into helium. The helium atoms then collide, fusing into carbon and oxygen. A cascade of collisions and fusions continues, as elements combine to form heavier elements, and heavier elements, etc. Eventually the weight and energy of all these chemical elements cause a star to become so pressurized it explodes, blasting the elements it’s created deep into space, where they eventually coalesce into new stars, planets, and people.

In 1745 a Frenchman named Jean-Philippe de Cheseaux discovered a cluster of faraway stars, now called the Eagle Nebula. In 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope photographed a region of the nebula in which densely packed interstellar gas and dust has formed three vertical columns. These columns are particularly fertile star factories. They’re popularly called “Pillars of Creation”.

Here’s the famous photo, courtesy of Wikipedia:



pillars




So… Kabbalah mythologizes three columns of sefirot that process divine light into physical matter, and cosmology discovers three “Pillars of Creation” that birth stars and all the chemical elements they engender.

The question again: What happens when metaphors become measurables?

Comments welcome.

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29 Jun

Religion, Science, and Education

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / June 29, 2009 / 8 Comments

Yesterday I graduated the Master of Arts in Education program at Antioch University Los Angeles! This personal milestone has put me in an excited and reflective state of mind. And so today, rather than detailing a specific poetic interconnection between spirituality and science, I’m feeling inspired to renew the overall mission statement of this blog, and my ongoing research in religion, science, and education.

This post is a credo!

The world’s religions have been at odds for centuries, with violent and tragic results. And since the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century, religion and science have also been unable to stop fighting. The reason for these conflicts is that our religious sects, and religion and science, have traditionally offered very different answers to the deepest questions people face: Where did we come from? Who are we? Why are we here?

These questions are philosophical, but should not be dismissed as abstract. Guiding philosophies lead directly to actions. Our metaphysics informs our ethics.

In his wonderful book Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, groundbreaking religion/science scholar Ian Barbour defines metaphysics as “philosophical analysis of the most general characteristics and components of reality…” At this point in human history, we undertake such analysis of our foundations using religion and science as our main tools. Sadly, in my opinion, both have become misused and misinterpreted in-and-of themselves. Traditional religious dogma convinces us our deepest questions all have answers, promoting absolutism over inquiry, hubris over humility. Worst case result: we kill in the name of our chosen deity. The scientific materialism of classical physics reduced us to assemblages of mindless particles moving in empty space—purposeless, lacking agency and soul. Emphasizing technology over wisdom, we penetrated the atom and used what we learned to build nuclear bombs.

But inside these tragic problems lies their solution: there are less traditional forms of religion and new developments in science that answer our most vital metaphysical questions in ways that sound similar, finally allowing for the possibility of an integrative and constructive worldview in which we can all share, peacefully. These untraditional forms of religion are the mysticisms this blog continually describes and celebrates: Vedanta Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism. The new developments in science are Einstein’s relativity theories, quantum theory, chaos theory, systems theory, and evolutionary biology.

The perennial philosophy of mystical spirituality and the worldview emerging from discoveries in modern science both describe a reality characterized by holism, interdependent relationship, and emergent creativity. This sort of reality should inspire awe and humility, compassion and charity, and playfulness and artistry.

As a thinker, writer and educator, I encourage all these orientations! I find them all to be expansive. Thus expanded, we all tend to kindness.

I also prioritize synthesis: both/and, higher level thinking. Other academics have championed religious tolerance, and tolerance between religion and science. While admirable, these efforts haven’t eased the perception that these two worldviews are fundamentally dissimilar—thesis and antithesis. My mission is actual resolution of the dialectic: I want to lead my readers and students in identifying principles common to religion and science, and interweaving them into a new unified and useful philosophical tapestry.

To repeat an analogy previously used in this blog: Only from the mountaintop can we clearly see how all paths upward actually converge on the same peak.

My goal is to illumine that summit—and to share the beauty, joy, and enchantment I experience seeing it all lit up!

Thank you, as always, for joining me along the way.

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19 May

Yin Yang Jung

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / May 19, 2009 / 4 Comments

Today’s poetic interconnection between spirituality and science is inspired by the Chinese Tai Chi symbol:

 

Tai Chi

 

This classic Taoist emblem illustrates the dynamic relationship between yin and yang. Fundamental metaphysical compliments, these archetypes of passivity and activity, rest and energy, constantly flow into and back out of one another. And even when either one is dominating, a spot of the other remains—right in the middle.

Together, yin and yang characterize the fundamental tao: the full circle, ever in fluid motion.

Carl Jung was a pioneering psychologist who believed that the human personality was characterized by two similar elements: anima and animus. Anima is the feminine, connective and passive element of the psyche, and animus is the masculine, discriminative and active element. Jung taught that men’s psyches are balanced and “compensated” by their anima, and women’s by their animus. He further theorized that neither anima nor animus are directly perceivable on their own—only in interaction with a member of the opposite sex does a person’s corresponding gender archetype activate, coming clearly into view.

Jung thought anima and animus to be timeless expressions of the collective unconscious—the part of the psyche that transcends personal identity. He believed dream symbols, myths and other common human characteristics and patterns come from this shared field of consciousness.

Anima and animus seem to me to be smoothly analogous with yin and yang. And Jung’s collective unconscious can be likened to the fundamental tao.

Let’s re-imagine the Tai Chi symbol, then, as an emblem depicting the human psyche—anima and animus swirling and interpenetrating, the full circle symbolizing the complete self in dynamic balance!

Neils Bohr, a primary architect of quantum theory, similarly re-imagined the Tai Chi in his Danish coat-of-arms, using it to represent another totality characterized by interdependent opposites: the quantum. Bohr’s principle of complementarity asserts that all quantum phenomena require two simultaneous types of description—one appropriate to waves, and one appropriate to particles. He developed this principle after experiments revealed that quanta display characteristics of both, which is an ongoing mystery, as waves and particles were previously thought to be mutually exclusive modes of matter.

Waves passively intermix when they encounter one another, making them analogous to yin and anima. Particles actively bounce off one another when they meet, or they break up into smaller particles. Either way, they remain discrete, like yang and animus.

Contemporary physicists theorize that all quanta spring from and share in a foundational field of physical energy known as the Zero Point Field. This field can be visualized either as a dense tapestry of interweaving waves, or a boiling body of water from which particles bubble up.

The quantum ZPF is thus another wholeness with dual characteristics—like the tao, like Jung’s collective unconscious.

And so I’m led to ask these questions: Is science only recently discovering a fundamental reality that mystics and philosophers have intuited and experienced for millennia? Is physics confirming metaphysics?! And if so, should that strengthen our trust in less empirical ways of interpreting the world?

Comments welcome.

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20 Apr

Unifications

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / April 20, 2009 / 1 Comment

Today’s poetic interconnection between spirituality and science is inspired by a bold book called The Trouble With Physics. Written by Lee Smolin, one of my favorite contemporary physicists, the text argues against the popularity of string theory. After years of focus and funding, the cutting-edge theory has yet to actually be made physically testable. And since good science requires experimental trial and verdict, the question inevitably comes: Is string theory science at all, or just wishful thinking?

Discussing the almost religious faith the theory has inspired in the scientific community, Smolin explains that its big temptation is its claim of unification. String theorists believe they’ve discovered a Theory of Everything—a mathematical and conceptual framework that fully explains our physical foundations, incorporating all the previously irreconcilable masses and forces in the universe.

A true TOE could be the sublime end of theoretical physics. A messianic age for science! Good stuff.

Smolin writes:

The most cherished goal in physics… is unification. To bring together two things previously understood as different and recognize them as aspects of a single entity—when we can do it—is the biggest thrill in science.

This blog, of course, is dedicated to uniting seemingly dissimilar ideas and discoveries. And unexpectedly, this now stated goal of science turns out to also be the same as that of spirituality! All the world’s religious mysticisms teach us that the multiplicity of creation is an illusion: All the varied things we see are just passing, playful expressions of a singularity we call God. We’re called to recognize this reality, and live accordingly.

What Smolin calls unification, mystics call gnosis. What he refers to as a thrill, mystics call the sublime bliss of enlightenment.

Religion may inspire more poetic language, but the ideas are essentially the same: Both spirit and science seek the purity and simplicity of wholeness. It appeals to both our emotions and intellects in a primal and mysterious way, bespeaking truth. And the realization that we’re all entangled aspects of one totality leads to ethics of connection and compassion that can be world-changing!

Does it matter whether that realization comes by way of revelation or experimentation, intuition or cognition?

Ancient Kabbalists used the Hebrew word yehudim to describe the spiritual exercises and prayers used to reconcile self with God. The term translates literally into English as… unifications.

The synchronicity thrills me, and it leads me to ask: Are spirituality and science just neighboring paths up the same unitive mountain?

It must be a lovely view from the top.

Comments, as always, welcome.

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03 Mar

On Neurotheology

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / March 3, 2009 / 3 Comments

Back in November I posted a blog called Buddhism and Your Brain, in which I explored a possible scientific explanation for the feeling of timelessness experienced in Buddhist meditation. A comment thread commenced about whether certain kinds of brain activity might cause mystical experiences, or whether they’re just correlations—secondary physical results of truly spiritual breakthroughs.

This radical question followed: If spirituality is just biochemical, could Nirvana be achieved by swallowing a pill? Could enlightenment come over-the-counter?!

Liberation by prescription! Pharmacists as the new clergy!

I didn’t know it in November, but brain/religion questions are being actively researched by scientists around the world, theorists in a new subspecialty of brain science called neurotheology. This emerging field is also capturing the attention of religious scholars, to mixed reactions. Many find it overly reductionistic—a new way for science to try to discredit religion, diminishing divine revelation to just the strange misfirings of neurons and synapses. Others find it affirming, considering the blotches of bright red and orange in SPECT scans taken at the climax of ecstatic prayer to be the physical, viewable footprint of God—religious iconography for the 21st century!

Last week I delved deeper into neurotheology, reading a wonderful book called Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. In the text, the authors explain that there is a place in the brain called the ‘orientation association area’ that’s located in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex—the part of our brains where all our most advanced cognitive functioning happens. There are technically two orientation association areas, actually: one in each brain hemisphere. The left area is responsible for creating our felt sense of having a discrete physical body, limited in space. The right area generates our sense of surrounding space in which our body moves and lives.

Turns out, when running brain scans of Buddhist monks at the peak of their meditations, scientists have observed that the orientation association areas of their brains go dark—they become deprived of stimuli. Essentially, a monk’s intention to dull his or her senses to achieve meditative quiet results in a lack of electro-chemical flow to these areas in the brain that give us a sense of having a physical body separate from the space around us. Thus ‘disoriented’, a monk becomes literally unable to tell where he or she stops and the rest of the universe begins.

Throughout history, mystics who’ve achieved transcendent states have commonly reported a feeling of merging with an infinity of space and time in which nothing individual exists—including themselves. The feeling is always described as profound, and deeply pleasurable.

And so the questions are asked and re-asked: Have mystics been reaching God, or inventing God—interpreting unusual brain activity as divinity? And shocking as the contention sounds, does it even matter? Is there any deeper Truth than what we feel anyway? Or, what if this is just how the divine chooses to reveal itself?

This neurotheology dialogue is just beginning, and I find it captivating. It elevates poetic interconnections between spirituality and science to a whole new level. Accordingly, I’d be thrilled to moderate any small part of the debate, via this blog.

Comments welcome!

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05 Feb

God is a Dirac Delta Function

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / February 5, 2009 / 13 Comments

Math scares me.

I can handle 2+2=4 well enough, and even some long division without a calculator, but higher math—differential equations, divergent series, multivariable calculus—makes my head hurt.

So I had a conflicted experience last week when I stumbled across something called the Dirac Delta Function. Named after Paul Dirac, a physicist and sort of ‘Original Gansta’ of quantum theory, the function is a math equation that yields zero for every number you plug into it, except when you plug in zero, in which case the answer becomes infinity!

Infinity only occuring at zero… I had no idea exactly what it all meant, but I smelled poetic interconnections between the Dirac Delta Function and religious mysticisms. Buddhists consider the true nature of things to be sunyata—emptiness. And Kabbalists describe God as ayin—a ‘nothingness’ (zero) with infinite potential to become anything and everything.

Math suddenly seemed like a fear worth facing…

I called a friend, Dawn Porter, Ph.D., University of Southern California math/statistics professor and co-author of the fabulously exciting text, Basic Econometrics. I begged for tutoring, and she generously obliged.

Here’s what I learned:

A math function can be used as a formula for exploring possibilities. Considered this way, functions are best visualized as graphs: The horizontal axis of the graph (the x axis) represents a range of possibilities, and the vertical axis of the graph (the y axis) represents the likelihood of any of those possibilities coming true. Here’s a visual:

 

 possiblities graph

 

The Dirac Delta Function yields a graph in which almost all values of x register a zero value on the y axis, which means there’s no chance of any of those possiblities coming true. The only value of x that gets any action is x=0. At x=0, the y value becomes infinity. So, paradoxically, when x is nothing, when there’s no possibilities at all, everything suddenly happens!

The darkest hour is just before the dawn… (No pun intended, Dawn!)

Here’s a cool animated GIF to illustrate that graph, courtesy of Wikipedia:

 

Dirac Delta Function

 

Now… Mystics the world over believe there’s a proportional correlation between ego and God. The more we identify with our self, our ego, the less room we have inside us for God. Thus, the more we empty ourselves of self-oriented wants and motivations, the more space divinity has to move into us and exercise its wants and motivations, which are always loving and groovy. Then we become Godlike.

With that in mind, let’s reconsider the animated graph, above. Imagine the horizontal x axis is your ego—your sense of self. Now imagine the verticle y axis is God. The Dirac Delta Function says that when x=0, when you become nothing, the value of God for you becomes infinite! But when you have any other value than zero, whether positive or negative, the possibility of God vanishes: When we concern ourselves with ourselves, divinity just can’t find good living space inside us.

I’m a born again math convert now… The Dirac Delta Function saved me! How about you?

Comments welcome.

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20 Jan

FREE INTRODUCTORY SEMINAR!

In News by poeticinterconnections / January 20, 2009 / 0 Comments

A workshop about worldviews, and bringing religion and science closer together.

Saturday January 31, 2009 from 11:00 AM – 2:00 PM

Antioch University Los Angeles
400 Corporate Pointe
Culver City, CA 90230
(310) 578-1080
www.antiochla.edu

*Room B1060 (outside, by the bookstore)

Please RSVP via the Contact page… Looking forward to seeing you there!

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01 Jan

A Superfluid New Year

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / January 1, 2009 / 7 Comments

I love Chinese philosophy—its naturalness, its easy wisdom.

I’m in good company: Taoism may be the most popularized religious mysticism in the world. Books about any variety of topics have the phrase “The Tao of…” in their titles. A quick search at Amazon yields The Tao of Healing, The Tao of Eating, The Tao of Photography and even The Tao of Network Security Monitoring! And in contemporary America, the Chinese words yin and yang have become cultural fall-back terms for the idea of experienced, simultaneous opposites. They’re part of the pop lexicon.

A key Taoist concept that’s less widely known is wu wei. This Chinese term is perhaps best translated as “effortless doing”. The paradoxical phrase describes an orientation of self-surrender to the tao—the all-encompassing Way of the natural universe. Essentially, wu wei is pure acceptance of the process of life, and the sacred rightness of every moment. It’s about moving in the world by flowing with it.

Religious scholar Huston Smith, in his seminal book The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, summarizes the idea this way:

Action in the mode of wu wei is action in which friction—in interpersonal relationships, in intra-psychic conflict, and in relation to nature—is reduced to a minimum.

In physics, a superfluid is a phase of matter in which viscosity is zero. Viscosity is a term that describes a liquid’s resistance to flow, or disturbance by other substances. A thin liquid like water has low viscosity: It flows quick and easy, and other substances move through it without much bother, their speed only slightly effected. A thick liquid like honey has high viscosity: It flows slow and sluggish, and other substances struggle to move through it, becoming seriously held up as they try.

Viscosity, then, is a measure of a liquid’s friction.

In a superfluid, there’s basically no friction at all. This means a superfluid flows infinitely smooth, and things move within it resistance-free. So anything in motion inside a superfluid stays in motion, theoretically, forever. With no friction to slow or stop it, a process inside a superfluid unfolds unendingly!

A superfluid strikes me as an interesting analogy for the tao. And the quality of superfluidity is such a cool metaphor for wu wei.

So… Today commences a new calendar year for all of us living in the modern world. It’s 2009! This blog post is a benediction: May we all have a superfluid new year, characterized by the utmost wu wei—with friction within and among us reduced to a minimum, our lives flowing infinitely smooth and our happinesses unending.

Thank you for your readership! Love and blessings to you.

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13 Dec

The Revised Gospel of NET

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / December 13, 2008 / 2 Comments

Religious scholars believe our scriptures are mostly compilations. To historical experts, sacred texts reveal signs of revision, editing and translation. For me, nothing about this possibility makes our holy books less beautiful or valuable. I like the idea of God-inspired people co-creating our wisdom traditions. It feels communal.

This week, I was blessed with a bit of co-creation! My last blog post, The Gospel of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, was based on a book called Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life. One of the book’s authors, Dorion Sagan, was kind enough to leave a comment about the post, and in his comment he made a notable correction to what I’d written.

I’d said that perhaps life on Earth evolved to reduce a temperature gradient (difference) between the hot sun and cold space. Mr. Sagan explained that the reduction of any temperature gradient was a secondary issue, and that the primary gradient life on Earth reduces is between the “high quality” electromagnetic energy of the sun and “low quality” energy of space. He referred to the sun’s energy as “quantum packets”, referencing quantum physics’ discovery that light travels in discrete energetic bundles.

We facilitate a balancing between star-quality energy and dark, cool space. The poetry in it knocks me out.

And here comes today’s spirituality/science interconnection: All world mysticisms believe human beings to be a conduit between divine and physical realms. Kabbalah teaches that the purpose of human life is Tikkun Olam—’repairing the world’. In an earlier blog post called Kabbalah and Einstein, I explained Isaac Luria’s teaching that material creation is thought to be infused with sparks of divine light, fallen from their divine source and needing to be raised and redeemed.

So now, putting it all together, I wonder… Are Kabbalah’s holy sparks analogous to quantum packets of solar energy? In reducing the sun/space gradient, are we all actually working toward Tikkun Olam?

This post is to thank Dorion Sagan for his feedback.

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10 Dec

The Gospel of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / December 10, 2008 / 3 Comments

My latest poetic interconnection between spirituality and science involves a branch of science with a long, scary name: nonequilibrium thermodynamics.

Nonequilibrium thermodynamics (abbreviated ‘NET’) combines physics and biology, studying the energy processes of open systems. All living things, including you and I, are open systems. Put simply, this means that while we are individual selves, we are also interwoven with our environment, exchanging energy and information with it in constant cycle. Exploring how this occurs can help us understand life. So NET is meaningful.

I’ve been learning about NET from a wonderful book called Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life. It emphasizes that the guiding principle of NET is that “nature abhors a gradient”. A gradient is any difference across a distance: When somewhere is hotter than somewhere else, or when something is more highly pressurized than something else, a gradient exists between the two. Gradients, then, are always relative dualities: colder/hotter, more pressurized/less pressurized, etc. Nature moves to resolve these dualities into equilibriums—states where differences are reconciled, and energy and activity are minimized.

Gradients are tensions, like all differences. Nature moves to resolve its tensions into quietude.

In Judeo-Christian language, nature seeks Sabbath.

But without gradients, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. NET proposes that when gradients appear, life evolves to reduce them. Perhaps life on Earth evolved to reduce the temperature gradient between the hot sun and cold space: We feed on sunlight and dissipate heat into space, bringing the temperatures of both closer together.

We assist a reconciliation—it’s a romantic notion.

Perennial romantics, mystics understand NET intuitively. All the world’s mysticisms teach that the purpose of human life is to resolve the fundamental duality of self and non-self, realigning our essence with the sacred, undifferentiated unity of God. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas contains this passage:

Yeshua said to them,
When you make the two into one,
and when you make the inner like the outer
and the outer like the inner
and the upper like the lower,
and when you make male and female into a single one,
so that the male will not be male nor the female be female…
then you will enter the kingdom.

The Chinese Tao Te Ching contains this passage:

Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?
The high it presses down,
The low it lifts up;
The excessive it takes from,
The deficient it gives to.
It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient.

I read these passages and wonder: Are the Christian ‘kingdom’ and the Taoist ‘way of heaven’ analogous to equilibrium? Did the world’s mystics prefigure nonequilibrium thermodynamics?

Comments welcome.

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