Tuesday, 29 November 2016

alive, alive-oh?

Don't miss the delights of watching the Strandbeest in action. Is it alive? No, we know it isn't, but it looks as though it is, in such a lovely way.

So, what is alive, what is inanimate?

We know, usually, when an animal has died. The life has gone out of it. A body may be full of bacteria that are very much alive, but the animal itself is not. The energy processes working together to sustain what we call a life have stopped interacting. The whole system may still contain life, but it is not, itself, still alive.

We think we know the difference between living and non-living. At the time of writing, I'm living. My pen isn't.

This essay:

begs to differ. It is certainly true that I am (and you are) a particular set-up of atoms and molecules, just as a lump of granite is.

Life, the writer argues, is a concept we lay over the top of things in the world, and the boundary between living and non-living seems less clear-cut than I used to think. The old teaser falls into place here: "is a virus a life form, is it a plant, an animal?"  Or is it inanimate?

I think we have to fall back on the sort of argument people often call "common sense." Or, we all know what we mean by....

We tend to recognise a kinship between the entities we call "living," they are patterns of energy in forms that we recognise and use the word "life" to describe. Crystals may also exhibit, as he argues, characteristics that are often quoted as "lving" - they are formally structured, they grow - but they are not the sort of phenomena we generally use the word "living" to refer to.

The article is, I think, only drawing attention to the intrinsic and unavoidable clumsiness of the concepts we use all the time. They are essential but not, of course, perfect. (One reason meditation is so valuable is because it allows conceptual thinking to fall away for a time.)

But there is a valuable insight in the article; if we want to feel more at one with the universe that generated us, if we want to dissolve the alientating sense of separateness from the world out there that some of us feel sometimes, it may help to know that logically, we are no more than a particular set of atoms and molecules, interacting and ever-changing. 

In one sense, we are in common with oak trees, crystals and star systems. The same stuff. The way we are organised and interact, we call "alive." The way a brick is organised, we call "inanimate." But then, is a planet alive? A star?

Ouch. Time for tea....


Thursday, 17 November 2016

Time Doesn't Exist

What a daft statement. NASA can aim space vehicles with millisecond accuracy to meet up with each other millions of miles from Houston. You can buy a watch for £40 that cordinates with sattelites and crystal vibrations and, er, stuff (?) and is accurate to a millisecond. 

But: an airline pilot writes that from 40,000 feet up you can watch the sun's shadow creeping across the planet, and you realise time zones, sunrise etc are a matter of geography, a matter of positioning in the universe - positioning which changes all the time. Our sense of time and how we measure it is a product of change in the positioning of stars and planets, of electrons and protons etc. It's entirely relative. (Look, I know this is all blindingly obvious to science brains, but I'm quite new to this stuff, so cut me some slack, genius!)

We know that time's arrow moves only forwards. We know that we are time-constrained, like all organisms. Like all matter. Our consciousness can only be time-structured; we cannot really deal with eternity, understand it in any conceptual sense. Did you, as a kid, look at the sky, or the bedroom ceiling, and think or say "for ever" over and over again, until you had to stop it because it still didn't fit with anything you knew? (Yes, ok, I still do it sometimes..)

Do you now think, as I do, that we are all change, only change, from moment to moment, and that's only very crudely measurable by statements about time? 

"I used to think that..." "I used to like the taste of..." But it would not be possible to say exactly when such a change happened, or when it began to happen and finished happening.

Allow me to wheel out Thomas Stearns once again:

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

 I think neuroscience can demonstrate that memory is a matter of re-establishing neural pathways as we remember; that we remake the past in the present each time we remember something. Memory is not, to state the obvious again, a file we open with the same memory in it unchanged, every time we want to revisit the past.

In other words, if we "falsify" (change, re-interpret) the past it's because a memory can only be a present event. And obviously enough, the future can only be imagined, planned for, in the present. 

Those plans, those "if I do this tomorrow, then..." scripts we run, may affect, or bring about, what happens in the future. "I'll catch the 09:20 train tomorrow" and lo! It turns out I do catch it. But a plan isn't an event - the train may be cancelled, I may change my mind.

So the past and the future only exist in the present. But the present immediately becomes the past. A thought is past the moment it occurs. So: time exists, past and future only exist, in the present, yet the present vanishes the second (half second? 0.0006 of a second??) it occurs. 

Meditators aim to be in the present, to bring their minds back to the present. (I guess it's similar for those who pray. Or Quakers who don't so much pray in verbal formulations, but sit in silence with the Spirit. Never mind for now what Spirit.)

So mediators are aiming, without striving of course! - to be in the present moment. Which doesn't exist. It doesn't exist as a measurable state. It's a state of being, not a measurable unit. It's transcendent, except that's a verbal category, too, and there is really nothing to transcend.

Time to bang my head against a paradox, and see if that's useful: meditating can take me to a state of being entirely in the present. But the present doesn't exist. 

So what is it that is between past and future, in a universe of constant change?

Nothing. Welcome to the void. To the present beyond words. 

"If all time is eternally present
  All time is unredeemable."

"A mind free of thought,
    merged within itself 
    beholds the essence of Tao ("the Way")
A mind filled with thought,
   identified with its own perceptions,
   beholds the mere forms of the world."

But such wordless perceptions, such states of being, can be scary, because they show us that the self - our selves, me dammit, is not the separate and coherent thing we think it is. We are flux. Everything flows, constantly. Stillness is either a relative position, or an illusion. 

And, TS again, "human kind cannot bear very much reality."

Nevertheless, maybe, just maybe, the world around us would be a better place if more of us spent more time in that ego-dissolving, non-timemeasurable, wordless state of being.

"Tao and this world seem different
    but they are one and the same
The only difference is in what we call them."

because "A name that can be named is not The Name."

So a little more of The Name would help us in this world of ordinary names.

I don't know about you, but my head is beginning to ache. Time for lunch.