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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Stay tuned

The term "ethics" -- along with some of its synonyms and part synonyms -- has been in trouble with materialistic biologists for the last hundred years or so. The website Resilience has recently taken a look at the reputed problem: "The relevance of the lurking inconsistency to conservation biology and steady-state economics should be evident — conservation and sustainable scale are, after all, purposes that are ruled out in a world governed only by chance."

Yes, well. I am a "neo-Darwinist" as the term is used by Herman Daly, the author of the piece, though it is properly a "designation of Weismann's theory." I think he means by it that I hold to mechanism -- chance, really -- all the way down (as with the turtles) -- which I do. Scientific evidence as we have seen it to date demands it. So am I not among those who disbelieve in "purpose," and therefore in anything that can be called "ethics," as any part of the discernible universe?

Probably. But I'm just not bothered by the contradiction. The Internet is not a real place, but it's where I spend much of my time. What I experience as purposiveness (my advocacy for energy descent, subsistence, permaculture, and right livelihood) may be quite meaningless in the realm of stars, planets, plate tectonics and the thin soup, across the globe, of genetic materials combining and recombining by chance.

Yet I will advocate for these things anyway; one of the consequences of chance has been the production of me, and of my children and my friends. Another is the emotional attachment that I have to these, as well as to my home on a street in an unincorporated town in Oregon, on this continent, in this world.

I perceive that my brain -- its thoughts and emotions -- is involved in a web of relationships that predate me, and those thoughts and those emotions imply the honoring of contracts: Here, hold the baby, I'll be right back. Later: "WTF, where's the baby?" "I dunno." "What do you mean, you don't know?" These things matter little to the Joneses eight houses away, and not at all to a blue whale, or to Mount Monadnock, but they matter to my perception and experience of myself, to the young mother who has entrusted me with her baby, and to the child itself. Consequences could build, up to and not excluding the possibility that there has been a catastrophic -- to us -- failure, the mother's failure to reproduce -- after considerable investment of time and resources, and whatever we wish to refer to as her soul.

At our scale, and in our comprehension, that's not chance. Pull the microscope far enough away -- say, a being "Q" examining our blue marble from beyond the orbit of Jupiter -- it is. Our local tragedy, from a certain distance, is not more tragic than that of a seed from a maple tree, among many thousands launched, landing on pavement and being unable to take hold in the punishing sunlight and aridity of that location.

I would argue that we have no "purposeful" business worrying about a presumed irreconcilability between chance and purpose. It can be demonstrated that the universe does not care. So, trying to persuade Congress to care may well be a fool's errand; I don't know. Personifying the universe as a raging white-bearded patriarch, or for that matter a fawning blue lady, is counterproductive; I think both are fables concocted to persuade us (if not Congress) to honor various contracts. But we and a few of those around us are all we have, really; we have arrived here by chance, will go out in a wink, and we can choose, perhaps, very little of what we do, determinism being the obverse of the coin of chance.

Yet, I am materially here. Riding the substrate of my material existence are the thoughts and emotions, epiphenomenal though they may be. I do have contracts, whatever the hell they are.

In that context I have continued to think about Buddhism and Permaculture; they are two organized ways of thinking about natural phenomena that I feel are consistent with each other. To recap: Following David Holmgren's formulation, I noted that permaculture principles spring from ethics. "Care for the earth, care for people, and fair share."

And so does Buddhism: "so, (here I take liberties) the [four] truths may be expressed: 1. Things are not quite right (between us and the universe, say): off-center. 2. This results from selfishness, the not honoring of our contracts. 3. Giving up selfishness restores the center and our usefulness in terms of honoring our contracts. 4. Here is how we fix that: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration."

These eight components of a way are easily merged or dovetailed with the currently expressed set of a dozen permaculture principles, here abbreviated to: observe and interact, catch and store energy, obtain a yield, accept feedback, accept services, produce no waste, design from patterns to details, integrate, use small solutions, value diversity, value the marginal, respond to change.

I'm not sure where these ruminations are leading me; I am by nature a syncretist and reductionist and have been very willing to lead myself by the mental nose into the philosophical ditch and then wallow there.

But I spend far more time planting peas than theorizing about them, these days.

I did do something new this week, though.

After forty-five years of studying about Buddhism -- particularly Zen Buddhism, particularly Soto Zen Buddhism -- but remaining, the whole time, diffident as to actually practicing -- I recently discovered that an old friend had gone off and studied in a monastic setting, received Dharma transmission and become ordained as a priest, and she and another priest have returned to Oregon and set up housekeeping on a lovely site in the Coast Range as a zendo/retreat center.

I visited, liked what I saw going on, and registered for a retreat (they have them the second Saturday each month). These are, in effect, one-day sesshin with a rule of silence. You can sit on a zafu, kneeling bench, chair, or if you need to lie down flat. I found I could handle the kneeling bench (Seiza posture). It goes something like this: forty minutes zazen, ten minutes kinhin, forty minutes zazen, ten minutes outdoor kinhin, forty minutes zazen, ten minutes kinhin, break, forty minutes zazen, lunch, forty minutes zazen, ten minutes kinhin, forty minutes zazen, tea, individualized bowing and prostrations and either zazen or kinhin, and at the end of the day, what seems like a self-crit session (silence over).

It was a hell of a start for someone who's been lazy about meditation for a lifetime, and I was sore for two days afterward, but profoundly grateful.

What did I learn? Nothing really new; in that amount of time, zazen is not likely to leave one feeling as if one has been struck by lightning. In fact, as I reported at the end of the day, I spent much of the morning with a song stuck in my head.

But -- especially during kinhin -- I got that one-pointedness, grounded in the realization (for me, anyway) that ...

... while the emptiness to which Zen leads you and drops you off may well be the discovery of that universe in which whatever you do, purposively, does not come to anything ...

... nevertheless can be a good tool for carrying out the eightfold holy way. And the twelve permaculture principles ...

... assuming, of course, they're the sort of things you want to busy yourself with.

Stay tuned.


  1. Anonymous6:22 PM

    In the big picture constrained by human abilities it seems nature has a tendency to organize in its cooling. As the universe cools and expands it also crystallized into organization, why? Do the secrets of the quantum nature have some answers to our questions? The very process of thought is a matter of making an organized sense out of chaos. I suspect the sub conscience is the first step of taking billions of pieces of information and trying to fit them in some pattern. The neurons use a feedback loop similar to that used in fractural geometry to screen mixed data. Are you sure you have all the data to not have reason?


  2. Oh, sure. The universe is a cooling flux, the brain is a difference engine; if a thing held absolutely still, not only would we not be able to perceive it, but it may well cease, for all practical purposes, to exist. All which is why Bucky talked about seeming to be a verb. But I'm really only talking about why I'd want to grow an onion and then give it away.

  3. Anonymous8:55 AM

    Anything above absolute zero has energy if there is such a thing as absolute. The brain is made of the same stuff stars are made of and should have the same laws. Questions are like onions you have to keep pealing away layers. Right now Texas sweet onions are in season I use about one each day. I grow ideas and give them away. ;)


  4. Mmm, Texas sweet onions and ideas. ^_^

  5. Anonymous10:25 AM

    I have vague memories of anthropology classes in school -- ? -- that talked about altruism evolving because it's necessary to create and hold together a society, and we need a society, for various reasons. Makes sense to me, although I also vaguely recall feeling indignant about such coldly reductionist practicality at the time. Besides, it feels much better to consider oneself reasonably ethical and working toward creating the kind of society one wants to live in, and toward not damaging the planetary ecosystem, which does not, after all, belong just to us. But that's about as philosophical as I tend to get. Never did have much of a head for it.


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