Purpose of Life In a High Buddhist Viewpoint
More and more, as it seems less and less likely to me that the human species will avoid extinction by any path I can think of, I find myself asking: what now? What is a rational way forward for me (and others) as a person? That drives me back to re-examining basic principles.
In a way, I hate having to include background so much, but realistically, without some background, I might as well be speaking a foreign language to most people.
Long ago, from middle school to the start of undergraduate days, I was deeply interested in philosophy, but understood that getting a degree in philosophy would not be a good way to pursue that interest in the twentieth century. Yet I did at least take the basic survey course in philosophy at Harvard, from Albritton and Cavell (sp?), and understood the basics of the “four main elements of philosophy – ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and ...”. It was amusing for me, a few weeks ago, to get into some email debates with Accredited Philosophers who were deep into metaphysics... and, in my view, totally out of touch with reality. Ethics and epistemology are the real foundation of what we know, and in a sense metaphysics is just a kind of application domain.
In this “diary note” – I address my recent thoughts on the subject of “ethics,” which should not be confused at all with the definition of “ethics” which you hear more often in today’s world. Many people just assume that “ethics” means a lot of self-righteous posturing about which hand to use when holding a fork and such, or that it refers to a branch of law which sets up rules to minimize the damage due to conflicts of interest. Here, I will be talking about a different, older definition of “ethics” – the ethics which tries to help us define meaning and purpose in life, and also addresses the age old question of whether there IS any meaning or purpose in life. In modern language, it includes the question of what our utility function U should be when we try to engage in rational decision-making, and the question of whether we really want to be rational, in what way and to what degree.
Well before 1967, as an undergraduate, I believe I worked out a proper answer to the general question here. I knew enough about neural networks and emergent phenomena that I saw no plausible basis for believing the weird, extraneous systems of metaphysics and the conflicting religions which people in power had used to control others. In a realistic, Einsteinian universe, the logic was simple: (1) there is NO logical way to answer a question like “what should I do,” using just logic, unless one cheats by including an axiom which already assumes what one should do; (2) but there IS a scientific way to answer the sharper questions, “What WOULD I do if I were wise ... if I found an ‘answer’ fully satisfying to ME”; (3) the third translates directly into “be true to yourself” and “know yourself,” the core principle of ethics in high Confucianism, where it is called “zheng qi” (translated in Qufu to “integrity”). This is explained in more complete depth in my paper posted at www.werbos.com/Mind_in_time.pdf, published in a Russian journal last year (cited at www.werbos.com/Mind.htm.) “Zheng qi” might just as well be translated as “sanity” or “sapience,” as my paper explains.
Achieving “integrity” even at that first, mundane level requires more than just logic. It requires making connections in the mind between direct feelings of “light” versus “dark” or “good” versus “bad” into words... and ultimately to a concept of a utility function. Why should true sanity require a fundamental acceptance of mathematics? Well, sanity or “zhengqi” is basically about how we use symbols like words and mathematics in reasoning. People sometimes call English a “natural language,” but it is just as artificial as mathematics; getting our axioms straight is the essence of sanity. It is a matter of building a solid foundation for the many things we need to learn, integrating the faculties of our mind.
But in 1967 to 1972 (also discussed in the paper), I had to do a major revision of my view of ethics, due to experience which convinced me that life and the mind are not as simple as I thought. As a byproduct of becoming more “whole,” as a result of pursuing mundane sanity and trying to understand the brain better... I ended up having to make sense of experience which required a different worldview, also described in that paper. Thus I now believe that we humans are actually a kind of symbiotic organism, a symbiosis of what we call the body and of something I call the “noosphere”. My concept of the noosphere is not exactly the same as that of Teilhard de Chardin, but there are many similarities. Teilhard imagines that the noosphere is arising as a result of normal emergent phenomena on earth, which may sound more like science and more politically correct to some – but is not convincing to those who know more about how evolution and entropy actually work. In my view, the noosphere is essentially another organism, made up of something like dark matter, which can exist and persist only as a result of a larger system of evolution in the larger venue of dark matter. That is quite a stretch, but I can think of nothing any simpler than that which is really logically consistent and fits the range of experience.
Again, that also required a lot of adaptation for me. It requires integrating a larger volume of experience, to raise zheng qi to a higher level. From 1967 to 1972 (and maybe a year or two beyond that), I raised my level of zheng qi from the first, mundane level to a full acceptance of the “Alchemical marriage.” The alchemical marriage is an old concept, which became very visible in Europe with the publication of ... the Rosicrucian open manifesto in the 1600’s. In that concept, we accept the reality that we are each a symbiosis of “body” and “soul,” and that the rational course is to seek a “good marriage” of those two aspects – a “Pareto optimum” of close cooperation and integration of both aspects of the self. One corollary is that ordinary death REALLY IS death of a major part of the self, and not such a small thing as religious people hope. Another corollary: it makes sense to put critical information “on the hard disk,” on the storage which is more likely to survive (as in the core of the Gurdjieff system). It takes some time and experience to fully assimilate the reality that are that kind of hybrid, that this is what “I” is... and to better understand the basics of the “spiritual” half of the self.
=========== But what happens when death approaches, not just personal?
When death approaches, suddenly the strategic calculations change!
For myopic people, who lack zhengqi and feel as if reality ends at the skin of their body, this is an old problem. When personal death approaches, they lose purpose in their life. But even mundane zhengqi overcomes that problem. With mundane zhengqi, one truly feels ones concern for other people, for the continuation of one’s family and others one cares about. In the US, whenever I hear people call for “more family values,” I think of conservative, mundane Confucians in China and laugh – because family values themselves can be excessive! I remember how Mao pleaded: “We need to learn to think of all of China as our family.” And I remember how Hu Jin-Tao clearly wanted to extend that to all of humanity. In full, mundane zhengqi, one is not afraid to read books like E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, which actually describes a biological basis for feelings which go beyond just the family – feelings which have been fundamental to the possibility of human civilization! (But: just as Teilhard missed key concepts of evolution, Wilson did not really understand key concepts of intelligence and utility function. In later life he realized that his followers had become too narrow, but he did not know how his work fit into a larger framework, as in my papers in Neural Networks in 2009 and 2012.)
Since I was never so myopic, ever, I never had that problem. But now: what if the whole of humanity seems ever more likely to die?
I have certainly resisted that conclusion as hard as I could, for several years. I have very specifically studied the primary sources of likely extinction for humanity, and discussed them with others (like the Lifeboat Foundation, Millennium Project and former colleagues at NSF), looking hard for solutions to the possible problems. The problems probably are solvable in a technical way, using economically sustainable technologies I have worked hard to understand as well as anyone else on earth, but the politics and mass hysteria blocking any real hope are pretty overwhelming. I suppose I will never entirely give up hope, since there does exist intelligence beyond that of any individual human (including me), but more and more I also need to face the question: what do I do if my old “alchemical marriage” game of minimizing the probability of human survival is not really enough?
I would not CHOOSE a future where the soul half lives on and the bodily human species does not, but how does one rationally cope with THAT possibility, especially when it looms as much more likely than the other? In fact, “what is the utility function of the soul”?
Actually, I considered that question long ago. It is an important question for HALF of the Alchemical Marriage solution.
LINKS TO BUDDHISM AND ROSICRUCIANISM AND TIBET
Yes, I have gotten primary source information (first person information) about all of these and more. Maybe I will go back and expand this later, because there is so much to say – especially now, as I have had a chance to visit centers all over the earth (and even got into trouble once in China as I wandered into a forbidden zone in Nanjing which had very interesting vibes).
One idea these all share is the idea that “life is just a school.” For the soul half of us, our life on earth is like a Montessori school, in a way. The utility function is... a measure of how much we learn and grow. Human potential is THE utility function of the soul, and all human movements which defy its needs will experience surprising difficulties.
But.. must run.
In some sense, earth tangible outcomes are not so real or so important for the soul. Yes, it is bad to destroy your toys and your books, but they do not really hurt you directly. And if humans as a whole destroy the earth... as seems likely... it is very unfortunate, to be avoided... but it is like death and reincarnation of the individual as Hindus imagine it. (We do even exist as individual cells within the noosphere... too subtle for me to clarify this morning.) But – the network of relations BETWEEN humans, and other souls, are real in a permanent way which the local things are not. Except for those souls which just get burned away by the garbage collectors, like those souls who do not do justice to human potential.
Back in the 70’s I asked: “If life here is just a school, what is the curriculum? How do we do well?”
Joel Whitten recently wrote a book on that, deep in my files... he was a high-ranking Roscrucian as well as professor of neuroscience and psychiatry in Toronto...
In any event, there was a great debate in 670 Samye between Tibetan and Zen streams of Buddhism, neither of which originated in China (though the boss of the Zen center in Shaolin has made lots of money selling his version of wu shu, really marketing hard for money, and selling the idea that his is “more Chinese” – the famous Shaolin monastery.... been there... seen all that...). This was echoed more recently in a debate in the US, concluidng on the words “no mind” and “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is human potential and real. The simplicity of Zen can be attractive and useful, very similar to simplicity of Quakers, but the goal of nothingness is a perverted foundation, based on narcissism not reality.
Tibetan Buddhism is ever so complex... as is life itself... and it turns out to be a popularized and systematized version of something older which we also met in Tibet. As did a few other Western thought leaders in the past.
But this is enough for now.
The “third level of zhengqi” may involve more complete attention to the issue of how we live life if we remain highly motivated and rational, but focused more on how we all do in “school” and less hysterical or complacent about the other half of life, which we may not be able to count on...
Later, a practitioner of Chinese traditional medicine asked:
Later, a practitioner of Chinese traditional medicine asked:
I am very curious on what your goal is and how you will be trying to achieve it. What is your background and where were you in china…..?Take care,Jonathan Snowiss
For me the question of what my goal is... is itself a lifelong quest. A simple summary of my latest views is (above).
Earlier posts give some related details -- but only on the surface.
I have been in many parts of China, from Manchuria and the Confucius Institute in Qufu as guest of Confucius family (and LinYi and MengTzu teaching place and place of eight immortals and Duke Liu island, as guest of Liu family) to the usual (Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Wuhan, Shenzhen, Zhengzhou, Hangzhou, yellow mountains, Xian) to special places
(Wudangshan wu-shu school, Shaolin, Nanjing purple mountain place, "Vatican of Buddhism" near Xian, Temple and Cave of the Yellow Immortal in Sichuan, Qingqhengshan and TIbetan places in Sichuan up in Pamir mountains). And Xinjiang, Urumuchi and many silk road places. I have seen MOST of the places described in Journey to the West!
Re real Daoism, I remember the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, the White and Green Cloud caves up Mount Tai, and people I met on top of Wudangshan. And especially a very beautiful woman I met only in a dining room of the Jade Palace Hotel in Beijing, whose spirit followed me and my wife when we returned to the US -- who was very deep into Chinese alchemy medicine, but had great local difficulties. Also, in Xian, I am very grateful to a woman of the Qin family who showed us the old Taoist Temple which was frequented by their illustrious ancestor, including pylons with old characters even they had troubles reading; an English version of the Yellows Emperor's guide was easy to find, but without a proper explanation of how chemical terms acted as metaphors for spiritual events and properties of qi, both in China and in Europe at that time.
Only in the wu shu school on Wudangshang did anyone get really specific about the types of qi, and I was very grateful that the master of that school gave us a copy of the readings they use; however, those readings did not go as far as he did in discussion and on the blackboard.
I retired from NSF in February, in part because I want to devote more time to helping people and learning more myself in these areas, somehow.
I am NOT planning to seek any income from such activities, because I am blessed with an adequate retirement pension -- but I am looking for any opportunity to be of greater help to the needs of humanity.
I am very glad that you and your friends are working to keep traditional understanding of qi alive. That is one of the important threads.