A belated happy Natural Noumenalist Day

I will copy below a post from 4/13/18 about that old iconoclast Christopher Hitchens and his wish that we would segregate the noumenal (think realm of ideas and forms, especially those without tangible or material presence opposed to its opposite the phenomenal) from the supernatural.  (See post 11/17/14 for more on the origins of this idea).  His suggestion struck me as wise and important—think of it:  every noumenal experience is natural—it may not be phenomenal, but neither is it supernatural.  And if it is natural, we can work towards understanding it, not as religious or spooky thing, but as something in the natural world.  I have taken to saying “If it is, it is natural; if it is not natural, it is not”.  And to be clear, this is different from positivism or a reductive materialism, because we acknowledge that something noumenal, e.g., spirit, is naturally present even if we cannot understand it in positivistic or scientific terms.  As I mention in the piece copied below, I appreciate any acknowledgement that we are ignorant about a topic and especially that maybe we will always be in the dark about it.  I think this very acknowledgement is the sine qua non of intelligence.  So to place a landmark in my mind (and yours?  well, maybe not–no one noticed I was late with this post) I designated Hitch’s birthday, April 13, as Natural Noumenalist Day to honor him and his seemingly small, very overlooked and remarkably important idea.

I meant to post a remembrance last Saturday, 4/13/19, but I had to travel away for a funeral.  My aunt Ferebee was one of the kindest people (who died at age 99, or as she said ‘almost 100’) I knew growing up, yet still took care of business and the details involved in doing things right.  As I sat through the visitation and service, I had the very noumenal experience that her children (my cousins) and grandchildren and others who knew her were all laughing with her remembrance.  Even the pastors praising her ‘life well lived’ were quite witty (and that is oh so unusual for Baptists).  Ferebee’s spirit ‘infected’ us with the delight of knowing her even as we cried knowing she had passed from our world.

I had still planned on re-posting my old Natural Noumenalist Day but was not sure when given my fatigue with travel, spring allergies and garden work and the fun celebrating a family birthday with plenty of food.  (Did I mention that Ferebee insisted on feeding her family and friends? Sunday dinners were very important to her.)

I write today because I have just read about another thinker who cherished the idea that our phenomenal world is so extraordinarily complex and that the noumenal minds, aesthetics and the sacred are all quite natural.  I am very pleased to be reading Noel Charlton’s intellectual biography Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earth.  I will post later more generally about this book but I was happy to read a bit earlier that Bateson wondered if there was ‘a sane and valid place’ for an atheistic form of religion between the two nightmares of nonsense:  ‘established materialism’ and ‘romantic supernaturalism’.  He wondered diligently “whether . . . . there might be found in knowledge and in art the basis to support an affirmation of the sacred that would celebrate natural unity.”


Gregory Bateson

I think that Bateson was another early natural noumenalist and that I will enjoy reading this book.  More later on that and now the post from a year ago:

On April 13, 1949, Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England. He was a brilliant essayist and exercised a keen intellect. I recently looked him up on Wikipedia and marveled at the number of people listed as his influences; that he took in so deeply from so many, I think, was critical to the quality of his writing and thinking. Today on this April 13th I want to remember him for something he said in a Youtube video of a conversation with his buddies, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (evangelical atheists the lot of them popularly known as the 4 horsemen of atheism). In response to a question from Sam Harris, he diverged from the rest a bit to their surprise when he said that he would not re-write history to purge religion in part because of the art inspired therefrom (this from a man who wrote a book God is Not Great, to which his friend Salman Rushdie whom he had protected from the fatwa replied that the title was too long by a word). He followed up with the statement, and this shows the independence of his intellectual mettle, that if he could change history, he would separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see my post on 11/17/2014). He maybe did not manage to achieve this in his lifetime but did plant a seed in my mind. Now consider in this light my 3/25/17 post on Jacques Monod who did do just that when he defined the soul not in terms of an supernatural immanence but in scientific terms: “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” We have only to make it so.

Wandering the wilds of Wikipedia I came across the ‘Brights’ vs. the ‘Supers’. Evidently some people of the atheist persuasion have banded together to call themselves the ‘brights’ and the believers the ‘supers’ (for supernatural), in the effort, I think, to be defined by what they believe and not by what they don’t. Commendable except they chose a term that implies the ‘supers’ are dim. They say, oh no, just like not being gay means you are straight and not somber, being bright does not connote others being dim. A couple of the 4 horsemen endorse this position, but not Chris Hitchens who said that for athiests to”conceitedly” self proclaim they are ‘brights’ is “cringeworthy”. I have to agree with Hitch on this one, but still to be defined by what you don’t believe does not make sense—it is a falsely constructed category, like someone who believes in the right to life, as some term themselves, could still be pro-choice for women. Being pro-choice does not entail being against one’s right to live.

As I read about our efforts to understand our world and universe, I always value those who acknowledge, even appreciate, our ignorance and these are mostly scientists because after all, science is based on the objective, i.e., not directly knowable, nature of the cosmos, so that even our most rigorous empirical efforts result in knowledge that is in some real sense conditional and therefore limited. I recently read in James Gleick’s interesting book on information that Curt Godels theorem essentially demonstrates that even our mathematical understanding is messy and incomplete and will always be so (again with contextual conditions). Remember Richard Feynman’s assertion that no one understands quantum theory and that saying you do understand it is proof you don’t—the half joke of a certified genius. I continue to follow efforts to understand dark matter and energy, efforts that seem to meet much frustration as we know ‘bright’ and not dark matter constitutes only 7-10% of the universe. We are ignorant of the other 90% even though many have good ideas. Still we don’t define scientists by what they don’t know or believe.

So back to those who hold, like Hitchens and Monod, that everything is natural, that even noumenal terms like ‘spirit’, ‘soul,’ and other ‘things in themselves’ that are unavailable to objective examination, and that, in short, what we call supernatural, when properly understood, is that facet of nature that we can apprehend but understand objectively only with great difficulty. What can we call ourselves? I propose the catchy term, ‘natural noumenalists’. I think that is a properly constructed category. And I further propose that today, April 13, be known as Natural Noumenalist Day. I will go now and enjoy our day. No need to travel on, just meditate on the quantum realm and get in touch with your ‘spooky’ entangled self. And say thanks to Hitch when you meet him.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

And now say ‘hi’ to Gregory Bateson.

Monod on spirit, Oyama on ontogeny, and a zen koan

If you have followed my blog for any of the last five years you will recognize my reference to Monod on spirit.  Jacques Monod in his 1969 book, Chance and Necessity, presented an account of biological processes that he (and I agree wholeheartedly) believes yields a more realistic sense of what spirit is.  Following a suggestion by Chris Hitchens, I characterize this sort of spiritual view as natural noumenal, i.e., a reality that is not phenomenal but noumenal, not supernatural but natural.  Monod refers to the wondrous world of Gaia with its incredible heritage of biological processes proceeding through billions of years of random events that formed the shape of genetic flows into the gene pools of today.  Here is his account:  “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”  As I wrote in my 3/25/17 post, “To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds.”  And one more reference to render in another way the musical organicity of our spirit, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce’sFinnegan’s Wake, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago.

In her book, The Ontogeny of Information, Susan Oyama took issue with Monod’s gene-centric view (and Richard Dawkins’ as well) by pointing out that genes are only one component in a balanced system of biological controls and that what actually proceeds down through the ages are developmental systems composed of the organism, its genes and its ecological niche. Put in my terms used here, ontogeny is but one phase of spiritual happenings as Gaia continuously transforms. So today our rocky, watery planet (research indicates that even more water exists below the surface that we find on it in our rivers, lakes, and oceans—who knew?) teems with life forms in every imaginable niche, from deep in the crust to the skies above and from jungle to polar ice and down to sulfurous deep sea vents.  And even more remarkable and fortunate for those like us who live during this time, humans have figured this out.  As I have wondered about in the past at some point on this blog, the chemical processes comprising living organisms on our planet constantly spark with energy release in ways we may not be able to see but can still appreciate, all of them in almost infinite numbers over billions of years.  Spirit as natural noumena.

Zen koans are short questions or puzzles that can stimulate our meditations towards enlightenment.  Probably the most famous is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”,  and many more have been created by the sages over the past several centuries.  I read a rather curious one recently in a book, The Gateless Gate:  The Classic Book of Zen Koansby Koun Yamada and Ruben L. F. Habito.  The pithy version of it is:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?  I want to consider this koan from the perspective of my spiritual understanding, remembering that rational deliberations are, when all is said and done, irrelevant.

‘Primal’ per Webster means primeval, essential and fundamental.  I think (and admittedly I am not a real student of Zen) that primal face in the context of this koan refers to the enduring spirit of each of us that links our individual existence to the infinite universe.  But translating, or better, transmuting to natural noumena, I find myself wondering about the depth and particularity of the myriad estuarine events that led to the appearance of my 8 great grandparents, 4 grandparents, and then my parents births in 1919 and 1922.  I use estuary to signify the messy, muddy complexity of fecund life in which we are all born and that comprises not just the genetic flow per Monod and its ontogenetic ecological niche per Oyama but also the cultural compost of natural noumena left by the social and cultural milieu of piedmont Virginia back in the day.  Who was I during all of this?  What was my primal face as circumstances of persons, comings and goings, family alliances, developing affections, sexual couplings and daily happenings advanced without direction towards my birth?  Is this my own personal koan?

Better travel on to my happy meditation place.