Yes, our world seems to be mired in anxiety and fear; and civic discourse has degenerated to accusations, outright lies, and rhetoric. We hear calls to “drain the swamp,” but it never seems to happen. Perhaps we are looking at the situation from too narrow a perspective. It is not just our politicians who are lost in the marsh; it is our spiritual life, too. That’s the message of “What Swamps Teach us About Spiritual Life,” which appeared this week in Swedenborg Foundation’s Spirituality in Practice blog.
The essay explores the correspondence of swamps in nature with the problem of psychological stagnation and economic and political entrenchment.
The common thread connecting our negative image of wetlands, psychological stagnation, and societal entrenchment is this: when purity and freshness, in the image of clean water, does not flow in our wetlands, our personal lives and our civic lives, these systems cease to thrive and start to decompose and decay. As Ezekiel said millennia ago:
But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. (Ezekiel 47:11)
The same is true of our spiritual lives. If we close ourselves off to spiritual ideas, and the possibility of having spiritual experiences, then our spiritual life will be deprived of sustenance and will decay.” Without the water of spiritual renewal, meaning and purpose will no longer be present in our lives.
“It all ends where it begins: with the water of truth that is the source of life.” (essay conclusion)
This essay is a companion to an earlier essay, also republished by the Swedenborg Foundation, What Can We Learn From Fire: Ecology, Economics and Spiritual Growth.
The Swedenborg Foundation has published “Transformational Fire in Nature, Society, and Spiritual Life” by George Gantz, on its Spirituality in Practice Blog. The article is an update of the essay first posted here: What Can We Learn From Fire: Ecology, Economics and Spiritual Growth. It begins with an analysis of our evolving understanding of the benefits of occasional fires in the forest ecosystem. We have learned that human efforts to control and suppress all forest fires have had disastrous consequences, and more enlightened forest management practices are yielding significant benefits. Similarly, in our economic system, efforts to control or curtail the creative destruction by which competitive markets evolve and thrive can undermine prosperity. How does this relate to our spiritual life? Sometimes we get stuck in unhelpful though patterns or behaviors, specifically including those that are self-inflicted — fire represents the transformational power of love in helping us get unsuck. “Fire in nature, in society, and in our spiritual lives presents an example of the principle of correspondence: in each instance, it represents the power of a higher beneficial purpose that can lead us through the pains of transition and reconstruction on the way to a more empowered life.”
A remarkable episode of Swedenborg and Life was just published, Spirals of the Spirit!, focusing on the topic of Spirals. George Gantz gave the opening presentation on spirals in nature, with fantastic graphics by Chelsea Odhner. Curtis Childs and Jonathon Rose give entertaining performances as they explore Emmanul Swedenborg’s remarkable insights on he importance of spirals in our spiritual life.
Spirals in Motion | Swedenborg Foundation
Transcript of “spirals in nature” by George Gantz
“Spirals are amazing, complex and beautiful forms – and they link together key ideas in mathematics, physics, and biology — indeed, they’re everywhere. One of the better know spiral forms is seen in galaxies – the massive collections of stars, like our own Milky Way, or the Andromeda galaxy photographed by the Hubble telescope – billions of stars swirling around in a cosmic dance, orchestrated by the laws of motion and gravity. And at the small scale, electron clouds trace out complex orbits around atomic nuclei in moving molecules – tiny spirals in space and time. But nature is where spirals are really on display. The very simplest of life forms, such as sunflowers, grow following the simple rules of the Fibonacci sequence, mapping out the golden ratio (one of the most curious numbers in mathematics), and end up creating multiple interlocking spirals spinning both right and left – a common feature in phyllotaxis, the ordering of leaves and buds in the plant world. One of the more remarkable spirals in nature, observed in detail only recently, is the flight of the peregrine falcon. They can dive at more than 200 mph, but in order to track their prey, they spiral as they dive, tracing out what is known as a perfect or logarithmic spiral – each part of the spiral a perfect duplicate of every other part – a special kind of fractal. So basically, everything that moves and flows, subject to the forces of gravity or friction or energy, eventually finds its most efficient path – in the words of complexity science, structures emerge through dissipative adaption – and we see that emergence in the spiral forms of nature.”
This is a remarkable meditation. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan monk, but his thoughts here about the role of God’s love in inspiring us to love back, and the importance of God’s preservation of our freedom, are consistent with key Swedenborgian teachings. As Richard says “God does not love you because you are good; God loves you because God is good.”
The meditations hearkens as well to the conclusion of The How and the Why of Emergence and Intention (written intentionally to avoid a reference to “God”) – “the universe rewards us with life, with complexity, and with the capacity for knowledge, self-exploration and wisdom… It is meant to be lived in, to be explored, and to be loved.”
George Gantz, founder and principal writer for The Swedenborg Center of Concord, has launched a new website and book project at www.spiralinquiry.org, dedicated to the exploration of science, faith and philosophy.
Excerpts from in his opening post:
“Knowledge is enhanced when we bring these three [science, faith and philosophy] together. They are symbiotic and reciprocal. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
“At the same time, we have to recognize that knowledge is empty unless it is put to a useful purpose. The pathways are many, but they all require effort and action dedicated to the goal of a life that is right and good. What motivates us along the path? The same force that flows, as cosmic intentionality, through the universe – the force of love.”
“The universe has given us life, beauty, joy and self-reflective consciousness – it has loved us. In turn, it is possible for each of us to reciprocate this love.”
The website will build on the enormous breadth and depth of material written by George for the Center’s website over the past six years. E-Publications of George’s prize-winning essays are available as well. His goal is to complete an initial book project bringing science, faith and philosophy together in a technically detailed, yet accessible volume in the next two years. The success of Spiral Inquiry is a key milestone on that journey.
His Holiness Pope Francis: Why the only future worth building includes everyone | TED Talk | TED.com
In a remarkable surprise video appearance at the Vancouver Ted Conference last week, Pope Francis delivered an insightful diagnosis of the ills of modern society, and a prescription – more Tenderness. “It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility.”
The 2017 FQXi Essay Contest, “Wandering Toward a Goal: How Do Mindless Mathematical Laws Give Rise To Aims and Intention” has completed the initial round of competition. The essay, The How and The Why of Emergence and Intention, authored by George Gantz, has done remarkably well among the more than 200 entries, achieving a 5th place in the community scoring. Evaluation now moves to an outside panel of experts, with the award announcements following sometime this summer.
His essay focuses on the process by which increasingly complex and novel behaviors emerge in complex systems. This process, and the remarkable and beautiful phenomena we see in physics, chemistry and biology, cannot be explained from the bottom up, under a model of causal determinism. There is an intentionality, a goal-seeking behavior, inherent in the process. Rather than being merely random, the universe exhibits a purpose. This view is contrasted with the multiverse hypothesis, which denies the possibility that the trajectory of our universe exhibits any form of selection. Instead, adherents speculate that at every point where a divergent possibility exists, e.g. every choice, and every quantum event with multiple possibilities, the universe splits. The fact that we are here in this one is simply a contingency – this particular universe, among the many, is the one that led us here.
The cosmic intentionality we experience is a flowing process that attracts systems to desired outcomes and that affirms cooperative behaviors among units with a system. In addition, the process is fundamentally reciprocal – each level influences the one below and the one above, in an endless chain of reciprocity. What force can be described as a force for attraction, cooperation and reciprocity? That force is love.
Thanks to the SF for picking up the Evolution and Purpose post. As they note: If you want a spirituality that is in harmony with science, there is some good news: the cosmos may not be so random after all. Read more
Dr. Kraus, in his article in Nautilus, has given us a marvelous recap of 50 years of theoretical physics – a dramatic tale of spilled GUTs, twisted strings, branes and broken symmetries. What a strange world we live in! Under those nested layers of increasingly inaccessible explanations, what will we find? More layers? More puzzles? An infinite recursion of theory upon theory? This has to be a discouraging time in the field. Even Stephen Hawking gave up on the TOE – “…there is no picture or theory-independent concept of reality.” ( )
There may be no solution to these condundrums. There are features of physics as well as mathematics that have defeated the best minds for more than a century. Some of these features are paradoxical in ways that more data and better math will not be able to overcome. Perhaps we need to learn to embrace paradox and admit that our reality and existence is, in some sense, truly miraculous. This does not mean we should stop trying to pierce the veil, but it does call for humility and the admission that we are, after all, merely finite human beings. And maybe, after all is said and done, we will find that “love is the answer.”
The 2017 FQXi essay contest is underway, with nearly 200 entries on the topic “Wandering Towards a Goal: How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?” George Gantz has submitted an essay, titled “The How and The Why of Intention,” that explores the questions of emergence, causation and intention. How one answers these questions depends on a metaphysical premise — is creation random or purposeful? Mr. Gantz argues that this question is logically undecidable and beyond empirical determination, but that there is strong evidence of a cosmic intentionality flowing through the universe. He concludes that this flow is love. The universe loves us, and we should love it back, with humility and gratitude for its many gifts, including the gift of our imperfect and necessarily limited empirical understanding. Mr. Gantz’s previous FQXi essays include The Tip of the Spear (which won 4th place) and The Hole at the Center of Creation.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring the genetic connections between modern humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) and other offshoots of the human evolutionary tree, including the Neanderthal and Denisovan lines, all of which are now extinct. Early speculations had presumed that modern humans had wiped out the inferior evolutionary lines. Yet studies confirmed that modern, non-African humans carry DNA unique to the Neanderthal genome, proving that inter-breeding occurred. A recent study shows that these Neanderthal genes continue to play significant roles in modern human biology and provide added diversity to the modern human genome. They are not simply lost remnants, but play important roles in the incredibly complex interplay of genes, gene expression and consequent biological functioning. While our species may have outcompeted other branches of the human evolutionary tree, it is now also clear that we also collaborated, at least to the extent of breeding children together. That inter-breeding has brought benefits to our species – something for which we should be grateful! As we reported previously, the myth of Neanderthal’s as brutish and cognitively deficient has been transformed in recent decades. They appear to have had art, ritual and religion. Any by some accounts, they may have been more honest and more benevolent than our own species today.
In the continuing downward trend in the civility of discourse, we are confronted daily with accusations and counter accusations of fake news. Perhaps the truth will catch up eventually (see: The Challenge of the Post-Truth Era) and the media circus will deflate. In the meantime, it is useful to ask what the spiritual implications are of the ongoing fascination with and continued promulgation of fake news.
Emmanual Swedenborg (1788-1872) would characterize fake news as a form of adultery – taking something positive and useful and perverting or soiling it, much as adultery perverts and soils a marriage relationship with betrayal. He acknowledges that for some people, this is enjoyable, but rejoinds that “the thrill of hatred and adultery, viewed in itself, is no more than a delight in excrement; and this is what it turns into in the other life.” Secrets of Heaven (A.C.1096). In other words, the appeal of fake news corresponds spiritually to excrement and a fascination with excrement. As he reported from one of his spiritual experiences, “Sometimes there has also been the odour of excrement, and when I asked where this came from I was told that it did so from the hell where adulterers live.” (A.C.4631)
Pope Francis, in a December interview, admonished the media to be “very clear, very transparent,” noting that promulgating fake news is “probably the biggest damage a news organization can cause”. He similarly likened the fascination with negative stories that smear reputations or promote fake news to “the sickness of coprophilia”, e.g. the abnormal interest and pleasure in feces and defecation.
The admonishments of two spiritual leaders, one from the 18th century and one from the 21st century, are clear. We all need to be careful to avoid and to confront the contamination of fake news, lest our own thoughts become soiled. And, of course, wash your hands frequently!
A new article in Humans and Nature by Christopher Boehm suggests that, contrary to the position of many strict Darwinians, evolution may not be random. “I propose a kind of purpose that could reside inside of, and not outside of, evolutionary process.” As an example, he points to purposeful human decisions that have influenced evolution. “Purposeful decisions enhanced altruistic tendencies, just as they reduced bullying and helped to domesticate us as a species.”
This article is a good update on the relevant arguments, but in my view it hardly goes far enough in admitting the powerful role that purpose plays throughout the entire evolutionary dynamic. In a previous post I wrote: “If, in fact, natural selection answers the question of the development of empathy and perhaps even of religious impulses, what is the role of religion? On the other hand, is it not also possible to see the unfolding of empathy and the religious impulse through natural selection as an affirmation of God’s continuing and divine influence – as evidence for God, rather than a conventional, materialist refutation? Rather than being a random process, the emergence of empathy is the “coming-into-being” of a spiritual potential contained within creation.”
George Gantz, director of this Forum on the Integration of Science and Spirituality, has begun writing for Peace News, the online newsletter for Promoting Enduring Peace, headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut. The focus of his writing will be on the intersection of science and culture and the need to work for positive social change that facilitates human thriving in its broadest terms.
His first article is titled: Preparations for Nuclear War Mark the Beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch.
On Being, the NPR weekly program hosted by Krista Tippett, recently broadcast two interviews with leading secular thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow, an eminent physicist and writer, and Alain de Botton, an English Philosopher and founder of The School of Life. Mlodinow explicitly believes in physical determinism – that everything flows from past physical states in conformity with the laws of physics, and that the universe is fundamentally random. Yet he also finds a place for meaning and value in human life, and Tippett’s interview draws out the close parallels between secular and religious perspectives on living well. The conversation leaned in to what the Celts might call a “thin place” where the veil between the physical and the spiritual becomes translucent. De Botton was raised in an atheist household and has no religious beliefs, however he has concluded that religion and religious practice have much to offer. His vision for The School of Life is to create a religious-like community for non-believers. De Botton is explicitly committed to human ethical and moral development and credits religion, at its best, for its unique role in affirming and sustaining through ritual, tradition and community the very values to which the secular world should aspire.
A recent article in Nautilus explores some of the latest scientific findings on the benefits of silence. What’s interesting is that most of the findings were inadvertent – researchers were studying the effects and of sounds and music on behaviors and brain function, with “silence” being the control. But silence was found to offer significant benefits of its own including reduced stress, increased generation of neurons and improved self-knowledge. As author Daniel Gross puts it: “Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace <the brain> to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.”
Of course, this is hardly news to anyone familiar with meditation, prayer and other traditions embracing silence that trace back to the roots of human culture. One needs quiet to be able to hear “the still small voice” (1 Kings 19, verse 12) that guides our thoughts and actions in the right path.
Incidentally, if you are craving silence, you might consider traveling to Finland, which has adopted a new branding campaign with silence at its heart. As the author notes: “In a loud world, silence sells. Finland saw that it was possible to quite literally make something out of nothing.
The Empirical Standard of Knowing – Faith Misplaced by George Gantz helped set the tone as the opening presentation for the 2016 Annual Conference of the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) on Star Island, New Hampshire. The topic of the conference was “How Can we Know? Co-Creating Knowledge in Perilous Times” and more than twenty papers, dialogues and workshops were presented during the week-long event. The key theme of the paper is that empirical science does not, and cannot, “know it all”. Faith is at the foundation of science as well as religion – and empirical and spiritual modes of knowing are both required for a full understanding of creation and life. The introduction discusses the broad arc of human civilization and offers an overview of the problem of knowing. Subsequent sections discuss the mysteries of space and time, entropy and emergence, quantum physics as well as math and logic. As stated in the conclusion: “There are levels of knowing that are inaccessible from within the physical and mathematical constructs of empirical science. The universe has awakened to itself… At the pinnacle of this awakening is our human consciousness – reflective observer of the world and self, the anchor for quantum physics and the purposeful end-state of evolutionary complexity.”
George Gantz to present “The Empirical Standard for Knowing – Faith Misplaced” at the 2016 IRAS Conference
The IRAS (Institute on Religion in an Age of Science) Conferences have been held at Star Island, New Hampshire, since 1954. The 2016 Conference title is “How Can We Know? Co-creating Knowledge in Perilous Times”, and George Gantz has been selected to present a paper on “The Empirical Standard for Knowing – Faith Misplaced.” His proposal has also been awarded the Booth-Shapley Fellowship as one of the best proposals to this year’s conference. IRAS is a society of natural scientists, social scientists, philosophers, religion scholars, theologians and others who seek to provide a forum for discussing issues of relevance to religion in an age of science. The 2016 Conference will be held June 25 to July 2, 2016. For information see IRAS Conference.
My wife and I have a dear friend who was traveling recently to Jerusalem. She asked if we might have a prayer for her to put on the wailing wall. This seemed a great opportunity to express our feelings about the state of the world and our hopes for it:
A Prayer for the World
Oh God, Oh God, why have we forsaken you?
We fill the earth with enmity and make waste of creation, often in your name’s sake, for the love of self, of power, and of dominion.
Please lead us, instead, to a state of right thinking, where all of us, Christian, Muslin, Jew, followers of all faiths, or no faith, realize that we are all your children, interconnected and interdependent, living on such a very small planet for such a very short time.
Help us learn to stop committing violence against one another and against nature, and to become fully human in the image of your love and beauty, that we may each and all thrive in blessedness and peace, now and forever more.
In your name we pray, eternal and everlasting God, Lord of life and love, Amen.
(image of the wailing wall)
Parents, philosophers, theologians and educators for millennia have grappled with the challenge of teaching morality to young people. Many great thinkers have proposed theories, models, practices and programs designed to instill virtue, yet people young and old consistently fail to live up to the morals their elders promote. Microsoft recently experienced this phenomenon in relation to artificial intelligence. As reported in the New York Times, Microsoft launched a self-learning chatbot program named Tay, designed to emulate a 19-year old female, into the Twitter-sphere. Within 24 hours, the program had to be removed as it had been quickly corrupted by exposure to anti-moral attacks that turned Tay into a “sexist, Holacaust-denying supremacist” (according to The Week, April 8 at p.18). It turns out that the company your chatbot keeps is important to its moral development. True, the program is not really a sentient human and has no morals per se, but the social learning the incident demonstrates is a reminder of how powerful social influences can be on the impressionable. Moreover, while the influence of social networks, e.g. family and communities, on human moral development has always been apparent, modern technology powerfully amplifies these influences in ways that we may not appreciate.