A Buddhist Perspective, Zach Van Houten

Science: A Buddhist Perspective

By Zach Van Houten

This series is focused on providing a Secular Buddhist perspective on the most influential ideologies in the Western world. It is not intended to be antagonistic, but rather comparative.

Science is impressive. It has given rise to so many useful technologies which have transformed our lives. Some believe it is the answer to our problems, and some believe that it has answered, or will answer, the most important questions we have about life.

From a Buddhist perspective, we want to be skeptical of all beliefs and concepts. In this post I will be exploring what is known as Scientism.

Scientism is the view that science and the scientific method are the best or only objective means by which people should determine normative and epistemological values.

Wikipedia

I have never heard anyone claim that Scientism is true. It is an extreme position usually held by people who aren’t aware that they hold it as an assumption. Many people live as if it is true, while not knowing they are doing so.

I will modify this definition of Scientism for the purpose of this post. I will define it as the belief that scientific advancement should be a primary focus of society.

Scientific advancement has many benefits. It provides us with mechanical understanding, which aids us in developing useful technology. This technology has the potential to make our lives more comfortable and to aid us in accomplishing our goals.

Yet, adherents of Scientism make further claims. They believe that science doesn’t just provide us with technical knowledge, but that it can actually give us answers in terms of what is important in life.

Can science solve all or most of our problems?

Science can answer a lot of “How?” questions. It doesn’t however answer most “Why?” questions. Some may disagree, but here is what I mean.

How did humans come to be the way we are? Science can more or less tell us information about that. Evolution by natural selection, fundamental physics and cosmology, chemistry, etc. Many of the mechanical processes of life can be explained by science.

But the question arises: why should I value or focus on science? This question cannot be answered by science. It points to something related to why we care about some things and not other things. Why should I focus on science and not art? Why should I care about new technology? Why should I think in terms of physical properties as opposed to religious language?

All of these questions belong more to the domain of philosophy than science. Which points to something important.

In Buddhism, we consider all things to be interdependent. This means that science, does not exist independent of it’s causes and conditions. It is intimately related to everything else.

So in trying to say that science alone can solve our problems, we must first acknowledge that there is no such thing as science in isolation to begin with. Science arose out of philosophy, and remains interconnected with it. Science is also dependent upon mathematics, and language, as well as cultural-historical context. Also, Scientism is not itself a scientific theory but a philosophical/metaphysical position about the nature of science and the scope of it’s application.

If we removed the non-scientific elements from science, science would not exist. So science must show respect to non-scientific disciplines.

Science is built on an idea in philosophy called empiricism.

empiricism is a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience

Wikipedia

Now, this has been a very successful approach when it comes to our ability to harness the power of the objective world. But is it a coherent or complete approach to knowledge?

I will point readers to the problem of perception and Donald Hoffman’s work on perception related to evolutionary game theory. I won’t go into it here for the sake of brevity.

If we observe phenomena but do not reason about it, we do not gain any scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is built on the marriage of sensory observation and reasoning. Empiricism emphasizes the sensory data, but it cannot dispense with reason otherwise no science would be produced. So science is not merely examination of the world, it is also our thoughts about it. And science cannot verify the reliability of logic for example, because logic must be employed to prove logic is accurate. At a certain point we just trust in our ability to both observe things accurately, and understand them accurately. Without that basic, pre-scientific trust in reason, science cannot function.

On the topic of the limits of logic and reason, I will direct readers to the problem of induction, Münchhausen Trilemma, Tarski’s Undefinability Theorem, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

We know now that our bodily senses are very limited in terms of what we can perceive. Technology has been able to augment our ability to observe and measure things, and mathematics has enabled us to make precise predictions. Many things we believed in the past turned out to be false when we acquired new technology to measure and observe more of the universe.

It is important to note that the science of what we consider to be fundamental reality has been through many revolutions, which have successively replaced previous modes of thinking.

We should remain highly skeptical of any claim that science has figured out fundamental reality. Not only is science constantly revising itself, but reality also contains many subjective qualities which cannot be measured and examined in the way we examine external phenomena. Scientism is a very objective approach to life, which if left unchecked can choke out and deny the subjective aspects which are equally important, just more messy.

Imagine you could map out and predict all the behavior of a person using scientific terminology. Would you feel like you know the person just by studying the mechanics of how they operate? Probably not. You know a person not merely by understanding the mechanics of how they behave, but also by directly engaging with them. So science can’t give you a relationship with life. You must do that yourself. And you will learn things that go beyond science if you cultivate an intimate connection with yourself and the world.

Furthermore, no game would be enjoyable if we knew all the moves in advance. So the quest for a perfect understanding of life can have diminishing returns. We know a sense of wonder is important for psychological health, and wonder stems from encountering the unexpected. We wouldn’t want to know everything even if we could.

Currently the most common worldview in science is physicalism, the belief that everything can be explained in terms of physical processes. This is actually a matter of faith, not proof, as I will demonstrate. It is faith that eventually physics will, or at least has the potential to, explain all phenomena. Something which it currently does not do.

There are many problems with this. One is that physics is not synonymous with science. Science is not a unified theory of everything. We have many distinct branches, which all have different principles and terminology and methodologies for determining what is true in their domain. These branches and disciplines have theories within them which explain how the mechanics of phenomena operate at that level. But these theories are not necessarily continuous with theories from other branches.

For example, you can’t explain the behavior of biological systems using quantum theory or general relativity. That is why biology is a separate field. Furthermore you can’t explain the behavior of humans by using just a chemistry theory, you need psychology. There is overlap, yes, but for the most part these fields only reference each other when necessary, and tend to function rather independently.

Emergence is a word which describes how certain properties of phenomena arise which are not characteristic of the constituent parts. This is related to the need for separate scientific disciplines which deal with phenomena at different levels of perception. The most famous problem posed by emergence theory is qualia. How can subjectively experienced qualities emerge from physical quantities? It is a huge area of mystery related to the hard problem of consciousness. But emergence also applies at every level of reality (why does the universe behave differently at the subatomic level than the atomic level? etc.)

What is even more foundational than physics is actually mathematics and language, since they undergird all scientific disciplines. So we could also describe the universe as linguistic and mathematical. But this brings us to an important point. Physics, like mathematics and language, describes reality, but cannot define it. It is a way of understanding life abstractly; it is not synonymous with reality itself. So the funny thing is, physicalism is actually a metaphysical theory. It is philosophical not physical. It is a way of thinking about life. But not the only way.

Furthermore, physics isn’t a unified theory. There are contradictions between quantum mechanics and general relativity. This has led researchers to pursue a alternate theory which is often referred to as quantum gravity, because the role of gravity specifically has yet to be fully understood.

There are significant discrepancies in our cosmological understanding, such as the cosmological constant problem. There is also the fact that scientists currently believe less than 5% of the universe contains ordinary matter (described by the laws of physics). The rest is dark energy and dark matter, which has never been observed or directly measured. It is merely postulated due to the inability of our current models to predict the behavior of the universe. It is effectively the “energy and matter of the gaps”.

Source: https://public.nrao.edu/radio-astronomy/dark-energy/

So we should remain humble about how much of the mechanics are actually understood. But let’s say we understood all of the mechanics. What then?

Let’s say science were completely unified with one theory which described everything perfectly. Would we be able to predict everything? Well, according to the uncertainty principle we can’t know both the location and the velocity of a particle. So it is theoretically impossible to account for all of the behavior we observe. Quantum mechanics works probabilistically, not deterministically.

Well, doesn’t science explain causation? Isn’t everything caused by physical processes? Well, as I mentioned there is no unified theory of physics, so no it doesn’t explain causation. Furthermore we know our ideas of causation can’t be entirely true because of quantum entanglement, which violates temporal causality and locality. Entangled particles influence each other instantaneously regardless of distance. This is why Einstein had such a hard time accepting quantum theory; it broke spacetime.

Einstein himself had sort of broke spacetime with general relativity. Turns out time is relative to the observer. We actually observe the effects of this with time dilation. Spacetime cannot be absolute. Black holes warp spacetime. Leading physicist Nima Arkani-Hahmed argues that “spacetime is doomed” as a result of his experiments with the large hadron collider. The Big Bang Theory posits that space and time had no meaning in relation to the singularity which preceded the Big Bang.

So our ideas about causation (causes necessarily precede effects) appears to be untrue of reality fundamentally. So to claim that science has shown that something definitively causes something else is just a relative statement of relationship. In fact philosophers have known for a long time that our ideas about causation are flawed. We assume events have causes but we always leave out information. For instance, everything I do was caused not only by my psychology, but by my body chemistry, my social environment, my family history and genetics, the history of civilization, evolution by natural selection, all the way back to the big bang. If things had been different at any point it is almost guaranteed that my behavior would be different. And the world would be different.

This goes back to the Buddhist notion of interdependence. All things are interrelated. So to say the neurons in our brains for example, cause consciousness, is a statement that holds no ontological weight. What we know is that some events precede and predict the appearance of other events. But essentially, causes and conditions are infinite, and we do a disservice to truth if we take scientific determinism to be absolutely true.

The fact is, the things we do not understand are nearly infinite. Science is an ongoing process of learning. It isn’t a set of facts to be believed. It has mechanical theories to be used. Even Buddhist principles such as interdependence and impermanence shouldn’t be believed, but rather used as tools to analyze concepts. If you reject impermanence or interdependence, that is fine. Use your own judgment.

The Buddha once said:

Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html

The Buddhist approach does not rely on the intellect alone to determine how we should live. The Buddha urged us to be skeptical of all things except what we know to be true in our hearts. This is an individual way of knowing, which can’t be turned into an absolute set of objective doctrines. It is a exploration, and Buddhism gives us the tools to do this exploration and urges us to trust our own intuition regarding what is good.

If we do not develop wisdom, the ability to know what is important in life, all the technology in the world will not make us happy. Because we will misuse it. This has already happened with modern warfare, nuclear arms, the detrimental mental health effects of social media, the hedonic treadmill and addiction, desensitization, ecological devastation, alienation, political partisanship and polarization, existential dread, etc.

Our hyperfocus on science is not healthy. We need to pivot and balance our technological expertise with wisdom. Only then will we understand how to use technology wisely.

Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke has identified what he calls a meaning crisis in western society. We need to revisit wisdom traditions and update them as needed.

We are suffering from a wisdom famine in the West.

John Vervaeke

Science cannot produce wisdom. Wisdom is it’s own area of study and should be cultivated on it’s own terms. I highly recommend Secular Buddhism and Stoicism, as wisdom traditions that are well suited for modern society. There are many other valuable ones too which may be a bit less palatable for the average westerner, but I would encourage you to explore and see if you can find something that speaks to you and helps you connect with your inner wisdom.

Thanks for reading.

Image retrieved on 4/30/22 from https://freesvg.org/ichtyhs-science under public domain.
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The End of Suffering

By Zach Van Houten

Suffering is one of the constants of life. It may be more acute for some than it is for others, but fundamentally it is shared by all beings.

What should our attitude be towards suffering? Should we despise it? Work with it? Deny it? Medicate it? Blame others for it?

Buddhism teaches that there is a path one can take (the Eightfold Path) that leads to the end of suffering. It is a very prescriptive concept of how we can take practical steps to overcome this ever-present aspect of our existence.

Christianity, especially Catholicism emphasizes the redemptive nature of suffering.; and how trials of many kinds can produce perseverance (James 1:2-4). The example of Christ’s passion is given to show what compassion and bravery looks like in the face of intense suffering.

Theodicy refers to the conundrum theologians face when they try to explain the reason God allows suffering. It is no easy matter to explain away, for example: rape, mutilation, torture, genocide, etc. It is especially difficult to hold that there is an all-powerful, loving being who is watching it all unfold and refusing to intervene to prevent the worst of events from occurring.

I personally find the idea of a all-powerful, all-loving being controlling and governing the world to be a relic of ancient thought, and a needlessly anthropomorphic way to view reality. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when considering the volume and severity of suffering on this planet. Something is obviously missing from the equation.

There are much more sophisticated philosophies regarding the true nature of existence, which can account for suffering in a more rational way. Once we remove the idea of a cosmic being actively controlling it all, we find that it is much easier to see that suffering is simply built into reality itself, not programmed into it by an outside agent.

We may not like that suffering exists, but it is much easier to accept that it is just a brute fact of life, much like physics is a facet of nature. Now the question remains, what is it’s purpose?

The idea of purpose is a tricky one. Because it implies intentionality. Rather than asking what the purpose of suffering is, I prefer to ask ‘how can we work with suffering?’ This gives us agency, and pushes us to form our own conclusions about what it means to us personally.

My life has involved a lot of suffering. I have struggled with depression for almost a decade, and even before that I was never what I would describe as happy. I had enough outlets when I was young to distract me from getting fully depressed, but at some point those distractions stopped working. Then I was faced with suffering in it’s raw form. Not just in myself, but in the world. It was like a car crash you can’t look away from.

I am doing much better now than I was in the first few years of depression. At the time it felt like the world was shaded gray, and I don’t remember any feelings of happiness. Just numb and dull, with a perpetual heavy, sinking feeling in my chest. It was truly hell for a while.

I learned to manage this, and over time worked up the energy to make life changes and grow. Life got a lot better. I still had a lot of emotional and psychological issues, but I was channeling my energy into productive things more than before.

I had decided when I first got depressed that I didn’t want to medicate myself. I wanted to beat depression. I wanted to understand it; to learn the mechanisms of this thing so that I could not only heal myself, but also help others. This journey has honestly made me a much better person than I was before I got sick. I believe that it has refined me. And though I am far from perfect, I feel extremely proud of the growth it has produced in me.

I feel that when the Buddhists talk about the end of suffering, it isn’t merely about suffering being bad. It is more about the completion of suffering; when it exhausts itself.

The truth is, most of the people I deeply respect have experienced a lot of suffering. There seems to be an initiation into the depths of pain and despair, which produces powerful and compassionate human beings.

In Buddhism the enlightened mind is likened to a diamond. Diamonds are formed by intense pressure in the heart of the earth. In the same way, we cannot be made beautiful unless we undergo testing and trials and traumas. The late Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh referred to this truth when he said “No mud, no lotus.” And having been a peace activist in his home country during the Vietnam War, he had seen a lot of suffering firsthand.

I would never tell another person what suffering should mean to them. Their suffering may be too great for me to comprehend, and too tragic for me to properly empathize with. The way we choose to handle suffering is personal. But there is one thing that is obvious: by choosing to accept and work with our suffering, we increase our ability to grow as human beings and to develop our souls. This, I believe, we carry with us, beyond this lifetime.

Thank you for reading.

Photo by THÁI NHÀN from Pexels

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Don’t Be Like Me

By Zach Van Houten

I don’t want you to follow me. I want you to find your true path. The inward yearning you have will lead you if you trust it. Your fate will be an expression of your soul. I wouldn’t want to interfere with what you are becoming. I accept you just as you are.

You can learn from me if you want. Take what you like about me and discard the rest. Use me as a mirror for yourself. Dialogue with me if you want to work out your ideas, or if you simply want someone to listen and empathize.

There is no need to be triggered by what I write or say. My thoughts are my own, and reflective of my very particular journey and my individual perspective. They don’t have to be your thoughts, unless you want them to be.

I wouldn’t want a world full of people like me. It would be hell. There would be too many tasks uncompleted, or done poorly. My limited skillset would not be enough for the world. We need people who are fundamentally not like me. And we need a lot of them.

I want my friends and family to know I appreciate them as they are. When I become judgmental or narrow-minded, I don’t intend to. I just sometimes get frustrated and project that onto other people. In the end there is so much I gain from others, it is amazing.

When I look at the world, it is easy for me to judge others for their failings. Especially those in the public eye. But who am I to judge? Could I do what they do? Do I know what their work requires of them? No. I can’t know the situation. It is not my place to assume I could do better than them.

Are my values superior to the values of others? No. My heart dictates what I value, and I am devoted to the service of those values. They are for me, not for everyone. Some may share my values, which is wonderful. But the world would fall apart if everyone valued the same things I did.

My life is a work of art, and every day it is being created. It is unique, and personal, and amazing. I am lucky to be in love with it. Not because it is easy, but because it is expressing my soul. And that is where true beauty emerges.

How could I imagine the work of art that your life is becoming? I want to appreciate your soul as it grows and expresses itself in a unique way. I don’t want to take your paintbrush away. I want to honor your creative process.

I want you to be able to find inspiration in my work, if it speaks to you. That is the joy of expressing myself. To be authentically real and see what happens. Welcome to my gallery!

Thank you for reading.

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

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The Sunny Side of Nihilism

By Zach Van Houten

Merriam-Webster defines nihilism as:

a: a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless
\\ Nihilism is a condition in which all ultimate values lose their value.
— Ronald H. Nash

b: a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nihilism

Now could there be any value to a viewpoint such as this? Does it not seem a little bit… bleak?

I would argue that, despite the reputation it has garnered, nihilism is more or less the pessimistic Western version of an Eastern spiritual tradition known as zen. What is seen as tragic to us, with a slight shift in perspective and emphasis, is actually great freedom and liberation.

Nihilism is considered to be the implication of Friedrich Nietzsche‘s declaration that “God is dead“, and the aftermath of the destruction of belief in traditional religion in the West. The picture painted was very tragic. Contrary to popular opinion, Nietzsche was not himself a proponent of nihilism, but rather a prophet predicting it’s arrival. He predicted the horrors of the 20th century quite accurately, as in his own view, a natural consequence of the collapse of religious ideals.

Nihilism extends beyond simple rejection of religion to a deeper mistrust of all societal values and concepts. The nihilist gazes at the horrors of life and doesn’t provide an excuse for it. He or she does not see hope or deeper meaning, just the brute facts of the situation. This outlook is deeply related with the depressive tendency.

So, if this philosophy is so depressing, what good could there be in it? Well, I would argue that nihilism is in some ways the dark before the dawn for the spiritual/philosophical seeker. The end of the line for all buffers against the cold reality which faces us.

Society is built around a sort of repression of the hard truth that everyone will suffer and die. Life is a constant uphill battle, offering no clear answers to why we are here or what we are doing. Some people happen to have a sunny disposition and are able to repress these aspects of life and enjoy their time. But for many, if not most, the actual experience of living is not easy at all.

Before we can find true freedom we must first take complete responsibility for our beliefs and ideas about life. Nihilism involves a ruthless deconstruction of false ideas and fake positivity. It sees through the futility of human concepts in the face of mortality. In the end everyone suffers and dies. What point is there to it all?

Buddhism shares a similar focus on suffering and death. Buddhists believe that life is full of suffering, and that the only way out is the attainment of enlightenment, or liberation. Everything changes, and grasping onto anything will only end in suffering. So the Buddha taught his followers to learn nonattachment: the art of dying before you die.

Society wants you to follow its rules and play its games. It convinces you by appealing to your sense of morality and reason. Yet the values of society are often superficial, and not well thought-out. Nihilism, in it’s rejection of societal values, has a degree of wisdom, as ultimately, all external values have to be dropped in order for a person to become completely free. A liberated being does not base their morality off of society, but rather their own inner sense of compassion and internal moral compass, which can’t be put into rigid doctrines.

Zen buddhism is an attempt to throw off all conceptual knowledge and return to the simplicity of the human heart. It involves a deep trust in the compassion and wisdom of our true nature, rather than the distrust of nature that society has instilled in us.

Zen is a means of transcending the idea of meaning in life, instead preferring direct experience. In this way it is similar to nihilism, except that nihilism is more of a response to loss of meaning, whereas zen is focused on transcending meaning. Seeing things as they are is the goal of both approaches. The main difference is in the actual experience of this meaninglessness. For zen buddhists it is an ecstatic experience to reconnect with their true nature apart from mental concepts. Nihilism does not seem to offer such consolation.

Zen Buddhism is practice-based. It is rooted in the practice of meditation, and the contemplative lifestyle. And in this way it is a fully formed way of life rather than a philosophy. It is based in a worldview which is fundamentally optimistic about life after death, even though a zen buddhist would be very reluctant to speculate on such topics. Nihilists on the other hand tend to be pessimistic about the possibility of life after death and spirituality in general.

So in conclusion, nihilism is for many a symptom of a deep spiritual need. A yearning for the transcendent, which cannot be filled by external ideas and moral injunctions. Zen buddhism on the other hand shares a lot of the same deconstructive tendencies with nihilism, but offers a fundamentally positive, practical, and optimistic path forward. I am not a zen buddhist per se, but it has been a fundamental part of my spiritual path, and may offer something of value to anyone with nihilistic or depressive tendencies.

Thank you for reading.

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Why I Don’t Have Faith In Politics

By Zach Van Houten

There are few things as essential to being human as politics. Any time there are groups of people cooperating together, there arises the need to make group decisions.

The necessity of making collective decisions can lead to a great deal of tension. The hatred between left and right has been getting worse it seems, and the internet seems to highlight this.

One thing is certain: politics is one of the things that defines the internet. Increasingly so as participation in organized religion declines. The void left by religion seems to largely be filled by political participation. Although it isn’t exclusive to the non-religious by any means.

Here is where I want to make a confession: I no longer have faith in politics.

Is believing in politics a bad thing? Who am I to say? I can only comment on what I have found is healthy and unhealthy for myself, and what my own personal journey has taught me. It would be profoundly ignorant for me to say others should follow my example. We need people to engage in all areas of life, and humans tend to be specializing creatures. So what works for me is mostly reflective of how I am learning to contribute to the world. Others will contribute in different ways than me. That is healthy and normal. Still, my views may be helpful for someone who is still forming their worldview. That is who I write this for.

I have many friends on both sides of the culture wars. Over the last six years or so I have tried to balance myself between the left and the right in order to dialogue with people on both sides and understand where I am on the spectrum. For the most part I find myself lacking a political home. In terms of temperament I tend to be more similar to leftists, but when I actually break down the ideologies that drive both the left and the right, I find I don’t really trust either of them.

And the third category, libertarians, I consider to be for the most part a non-factor in the culture wars. I resonate with libertarianism and anarchism on certain ideological levels, and also don’t in certain ways. For the most part this subset of the population has yet to be a major force in the culture wars so I am not going to really comment on them in this post.

The Moral Calculation Problem

The number one reason I do not have faith in politics is what I will call the problem of moral calculation. What I am referring to here is related to philosophical ethics. In order to make good decisions, we must start with good philosophy. Most people have never delved into ethical philosophy, yet want to claim things are “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad” without any clear understanding of what those terms mean, objectively.

Philosophy is rooted in how we think, in terms of language. A good thinker is precise with their words, and has spent much time considering what words mean to them, and the process by which he or she arrives at logical conclusions. If you are not a good philosopher, you will not be a good intellectual. It is that simple. Because philosophy is the art of thinking.

In ethics there are three main branches: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. Virtue ethics doesn’t really give us any detailed guidance on decisionmaking, so I won’t spend time on it (although I recommend reading up if you are interested).

Deontology

Deontology is much more closely related to the political right than the political left. The basic idea is that morality comes from God, and that our moral decisions should be based on Divine revelation. This makes a lot of sense if you are someone who happens to be religious and believes that Divine revelation is not only possible, but clearly defined and applicable.

While I consider myself spiritually inclined, I do not believe it is at all obvious that we have received direct revelation from an all-powerful, all-loving being, nor that said revelation is clearly defined and applicable. A honest read of the Bible gives me the impression that Christianity is a amalgamation of many different things, and that it isn’t as cohesive as many on the right would have you believe.

Does that mean that the Bible is not applicable today? No I would not say that. I just think it lacks the coherency that I would expect from a book touted as being the end-all, be-all of ethics and spirituality. I understand that deontology is not restricted to Christianity, but in the context of American culture, this is the only real application of this current.

The most damning argument against deontology is an ancient one, put forth by Plato, known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Essentially the claim is that we can only know that God’s commands are moral if we have a predefined sense of what is moral. And if we have a predefined sense of moral we must admit it did not come from God’s commands but was prior to it. Some people counter by saying that certain commands are moral because God commands them. Which I find to just be a veiled appeal to authority, or might-makes-right philosophy.

Consequentialism

Consequentialism is more closely related to the political left, although both the left and the right appeal to this in discourse. It is the common language of ethics in the 21st century. Even deontologists tend to claim that following Divine revelation leads to better outcomes than not.

As the name suggests, this branch of ethics is based on predicting the consequences of any given action, and choosing the most favorable outcome as a guide to our decision-making. We use this all the time in our lives, and it is essential to making decisions as a rational being.

Yet, it has it’s limits. This is where the problem of moral calculation comes in. Let’s say you want to make a good decision. You would have to 1) have a clear understanding of what a positive outcome looks like, and 2) a plan to carry out a series of actions to create the conditions for this outcome to become a reality. This seems simple enough, right?

Well, on small scales, yes. If I want to bake delicious cookies, I would merely have to know what a delicious cookie is like, then find a recipe and bake it. Presto! Delicious cookies are made. I carried out my plan and it brings joy to my friends and family who eat the cookies. I foresaw the consequences of my actions and took the steps to make it a reality.

Let’s raise the stakes. What if you didn’t just want to do good for a few people, but actually wanted to do the absolutely moral thing? Because at the end of the day, when we say something is moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, the underlying assumption is that the action is either a net positive for the state of the world or a net negative for it. Otherwise, is the action really moral or ethical if you don’t know whether it will lead to a positive outcome for the world?

In politics this dimension of ethics is especially apparent. Everyone will tell you how irresponsible or damaging someone else’s ideology is. How deranged, out of touch, and dangerous it is to hold certain political views. And from a certain perspective this makes a lot of intuitive sense. I mean, the obvious example would be Nazi Germany. Who wouldn’t agree that that was bad? I know personally I would never support such a regime.

Yet we must remain objective, because the appeals to your emotions are what the political machine feeds off of. Most people are so afraid of being perceived as immoral that they will posture themselves in any way to avoid the appearance of moral ambiguity. Yet the hard reality of life is that nothing is really as it seems.

To make a moral calculation requires an understanding of all the variables involved in a particular situation. Which instantly brings us to a frustrating truth: it is impossible to account for all of the variables involved in any decision.

There is a concept in chaos theory called the butterfly effect. It essentially is a mathematically derived idea which tells us that it is impossible to know the effects of an event over significant amounts of time, because the variables compound, creating all sorts of unexpected, seemingly random consequences as a result. The name comes from the observation that an event as small as a butterfly flapping it’s wings could actually cause a major change in weather patterns over a significant period of time.

We could think of it like this: if you choose to go to the grocery store, you will necessarily shift the flow of traffic on the roads you drive simply by your presence. This small shift on the roadways could theoretically lead to a traffic accident occuring that you could not possibly foresee. Or let’s say you cut someone off, and they get angry. They then go home and take out their frustration on their wife, which causes the wife to realize they are not right for each other, which causes a divorce, which affects the lives of the entire family, rippling out further and further into time.

These are just minor examples of how small, non-deliberate actions can set off chains of events unknown to the actor. Now imagine how much more consequential and multi-variabled political decisions are. It is a calculation nightmare.

Furthermore, there is the problem of values. Not everyone values the same things, and values often conflict. It isn’t so simple as ‘always tell the truth’, since most people would lie to protect those they love from serious harm. Because care in many cases supercedes honesty. It also isn’t clear that freedom is always good, because the freedom of one person may cause harm to many others. And ultimately all laws are curtailments of freedom.

If you study ethics seriously, you will find that no one has come up with a real clear theory of moral calculation that can withstand scrutiny. The factors involved in any decision in life are endless. It is actually impossible to predict the full effects of any given action. So why do we pretend that we can?

Simple. It is a myth that society operates under to maintain order. This order isn’t necessarily good or bad. It is just moral order. It provides a sort of consistency to society. It is to some degree an essential delusion for most. But I believe that those who are capable of seeing through the delusion of righteousness have a chance at greater personal freedom to live their lives according to their personal values rather than those given them by society.

Another difficulty in moral calculation is separating fact from fiction. Again, things are not always as they seem. And in politics this is especially true. The degree of corruption and mind-games being played is astounding. Propaganda is essential to politics, and anyone who has watched corporate news should by now be painfully aware that there are people who will intentionally lie in order to push an agenda.

Most people are not specialized or well-versed in the topics of national policy. Democracy has taught us to believe that our opinions are important which to some degree is true. But it also leads to a false confidence that we can actually understand the complexities and nuances involved in issues ranging from geopolitics to macroeconomics, and lately even virology. These subjects are, for the most part, beyond the scope of the average person’s ability to understand. This includes myself.

Another thing most people won’t touch with a ten foot pole is the proven existence of powerful secret societies and secretive government agencies which work behind the scenes, unaccountable to the public. Just do some reading up on the history of Skull and Bones (see this CNN video about them). Research the CIA’s mind control program MKUltra. Look at the history of NASA and the Nazi scientists we adopted (see Operation Paperclip). Before you dismiss me as a conspiracy theorist, have the basic decency to at least check the links and see if these things are properly documented public knowledge or not. Then make your own decisions.

I don’t pretend to have a clue what goes on with the elites behind closed doors but there is plenty of evidence that the world of power is very weird. And most people won’t acknowledge it because they are afraid of how crazy it all seems and how acknowledging it may make them look crazy too. It also makes it so much harder to actually trust the mechanisms of power once you see that they are likely corrupted.

The Deterioration of Dialogue

Another reason I prefer not to engage in political discourse is because it makes people defensive. Want to see someone shut down? Bring up political views different from their own and play devil’s advocate. In most cases you will see a significant drop in the degree of openness and warmth in the conversation. People on average just don’t know how to separate their emotions from their ideas, so to question their ideas and beliefs is to set off a chain of emotional reactions. I find this tiresome personally.

What I really desire is to have conversations of depth about what is truly important. Which for me, lies much more in the spiritual and psychological domains. Politics is an endless source of strife and cultural warfare. It sucks people dry. Look at anyone deeply involved in politics and I can assure you it has taken a toll on their emotional well-being. I know from first-hand experience as a former political junkie.

How do we really improve the world? First of all, I have no damn clue. It isn’t at all obvious my actions will be a net positive for the world. But I do know that what resonates with me most at this point in my life is heart to heart and mind to mind connections with people in love and honesty. Do I still have a desire to help people think better? Absolutely. But do I need to change others? No. I just want to be authentically myself and let the chips fall where they may.

Control is an illusion. And politics is like crack for a control freak. Letting go of our expectations of life allows us to open up to the experiences of this imperfect world. It will never be as good as we want it to be, no matter what anyone tells you. The healthy and rational response is to get used to that imperfection and find some way to give back to the world that resonates with your soul. It should feel right internally. Give up the need to get externally validated by a ideological tribe. Screw what others think. Live your own values with integrity.

In conclusion. Politics leaves most people feeling mistreated and abused. Helpless and fragile. Heartbroken and enraged. Is it worth it? For some, it may be. And it may be necessary to have people engage in it. As I mentioned earlier, each person has to follow their own heart and do what feels most right to them.

Thank you for reading.

Zach Van Houten

Decolonizing Our Spiritual Life

By Zach Van Houten

Society gives us ideas to believe in before we are old enough to question them. All of us are to a large extent brainwashed from birth; although not necessarily in a malicious sense. We are taught how to behave as a child, and how to act responsibly as an adult. By the time our brains are fully formed we have already ingested an incredible amount of information telling us who we are and what we should be doing with our lives.

As we become adults we may believe we are acting rationally and that our ideas are solid. Yet society has really only given us a point of reference; a set of presuppositions to adhere to. A catalogue of rules of thumb that help us navigate life.

Sometimes a person runs into a situation which requires them to question the ideas they were taught, and to form deeper, more nuanced understanding of the problem. This is a way many of us gain our own wisdom and knowledge. Not by sticking with the old ideas, but by voyaging into the unknown. When the old stops working, the new must be born.

In spirituality and philosophy we are experiencing such a crossroad. Christian religion for the West is struggling to maintain its dominance. And materialist philosophy is found to be unable to explain the very physics it is supposed to be grounded on.

Our minds have been shaped by colonialism. The belief that our way of life is superior to the rest of the world is still embedded in our society. We are starting to see that while we have wonderful contributions to make globally, we also need to sit at the feet of global wisdomkeepers in order to learn lessons a young nation such as ours is clearly missing.

One such lesson is the universality of Spirit. God is in all things; that is a message that echoes through world religions and philosophies older than ours. The wisdom of Oneness is ancient, and there are many teachers today who have been reaching a hand out to the West in hope that we would sit and listen.

Will we listen? Hard to say. Some will. Some already have. And others will never give up the narrowness of what they were taught. For them, it is our way versus the world. A battle that must be won, rather than a riddle which must be solved. The great sages and yogis see existence more as a riddle to solve than a war to be won. Once you have solved the riddle everything else falls into place. That is the magic of deep spirituality.

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Photo: Magnifier and white puzzle on hundred dollars banknotes by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

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The Universal Body of Christ: Diversity Reconciled in Unity

By Zach Van Houten

Within the Bible there are many passages which speak of a reconciliation of humanity to God. This is often understood in a concrete, and historical sense, based on a literal interpretation of Scripture. I am not interested in diving into all the reasons I do not read the Bible literally, as those discussions get tedious. If you consider all or even most of the Bible to be literally and historically accurate, that is your prerogative. It is not my job or my intent to persuade you that is not the case.

I believe approaching religious texts subjectively is really key when it come to receiving insights from them. I have rarely found inspiration in factual, historical details. Truths seem to hit home emotionally when we relate with a story or a passage personally. When we can see in it a pattern which goes beyond the particular story, it causes us to reflect on our own lives. It helps us connect our spirituality with the particular circumstances we find ourselves in today.

The Body of Christ was a metaphor used by the Apostle Paul to help Christians understand their essential unity as the universal Church.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work…Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:4-6,12,27

This theology of unity expressed through diversity is a principal that extends beyond the limited conception of Christianity as a sectarian religion, and hints at the broader unity of all existence. For if God is understood to be all-pervading, then we can start to understand that while Christianity was meant for the church, it’s revelations are a part of a much bigger story which is now being understood not merely through the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, but also through the inspiration received by many different religions and world philosophies.

To see this larger story we need a wider viewpoint. Our goal is not to make any statement of absolute truth, it is more to point to our human interconnectedness. To our longing for hope, and our faith in power and intelligence beyond ourselves. This is a timeless story and can be seen everywhere if you have the eyes to see and ears to hear.

How is this unity revealed? Well, first we have to look beyond the appearance of the world, and get in touch with heart of life itself. The word we use for this heart of life is Love. It binds us to one another, and fills us with such energy that we write about it, sing about it, live for it and die for it.

Love is experienced when we sense this unity deeply. And to sense the unity demands that we see through our individual differences, to perceive clearly. I will use the word ego here to represent our unhealthy preoccupation with individual differences, in comparison to other people and the world at large.

When we are able to let our guard down and open up to another person, to a group, or to life itself, we experience a love which over the centuries has been associated with concepts such as God. To be in deep relationship with reality, with existence, is to be in the most Divine relationship possible. Nothing could be closer to our own being.

The way we live out this experience of loving connection varies according to how deeply and broadly one has established relationship with existence, and how the circumstances of life and our psychology have formed us. One tool we can use to understand this expression of personhood is called the Enneagram.

The Enneagram has become quite popular among Christians, which makes me super excited that we will finally be able to understand the Body of Christ in a more true way. To see that every person expresses attributes of God, although for some this love is locked away and not always visible to the naked eye.

Ultimately I believe all people are held together by love at the core of their being. It just may be that for some, we may never see that part of them, and they may never be conscious of it themselves. The Enneagram gives us a tool to look more deeply at ourselves and separate out what is sinful from what is holy. That is, what reflects selfless love and service versus what manifests as dysfunction and disharmony.

For example, my Enneagram type, Five, is known for expressing cerebral, perceptive and innovative aspects of God. While at our most dysfunctional we can indulge in extreme isolation and arrogance. We can manifest schizoid tendencies and delusional thinking. Yet we also can be visionary and insightful when in healthy relationship.

I would encourage you all to look into the Enneagram, and consider if you relate to a particular type. Ask your friends and family what type they think you are. And most importantly, pray or meditate on the topic and see whether or not the Enneagram or another personality type system can help you see through the smallness of your ego. Because the point is not to worship your individuality, but rather to learn how to see your own limitations and then surrender them. The more we see through our own PR, the easier it is for us to serve humbly. All our gifts belong to the universal Body of Christ, and we can find peace by getting in right relationship with the Whole.


For more on the Enneagram, check out this article: https://religionnews.com/2017/09/05/what-is-the-enneagram-and-why-are-christians-suddenly-so-enamored-by-it/

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Zach Van Houten

The Tao of Christ

By Zach Van Houten

This year I stumbled upon a Christian version of the ancient Chinese contemplative work the Tao Te Ching. What made me excited about this is that it does what I feel is often missing in our dialogues with other faith traditions: translate religious texts from one spiritual language into another.

Many westerners struggle to relate with foreign concepts such as the Tao, since the word is entirely new to us. To add new words to the Christian vocabulary may not be very helpful. But if we look closely we can easily see that Tao is simply a Chinese word that can be translated as God or Spirit, or even Christ. And this is done here by baptist minister Marshall Davis in The Tao of Christ: A Christian Version of the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching tackles many topics in a very subtle and paradoxical way. It isn’t an easy read if you approach it with a analytical mind, but if you let the words hit you, and allow space for the paradoxical style, it reveals wonderfully beautiful nuances of contemplative life that can barely be put into words. Thankfully Marshall simplifies it even further here for readers who may find the original Taoist text daunting.

There are many great passages, and I will share one here that hit me this morning. It speaks to the way Christ lived in the gospels, and how He works in Creation:

Associate with the righteous and the unrighteous.

Accept people as they are without judging them.

If you love the world unconditionally, it will be like returning to Eden before the knowledge of good and evil.

The world is formed from nothing,

like a bowl formed from a block of wood.

The bowl is made of wood, yet it is the empty space that makes it useful.

So does God make and use all things.

If you try to fix the world, you will fail miserably.

The world is God’s to fix.

Can you do better than God?

In trying to make things better,

You will only mess things up.

That doesn’t mean you should do nothing.

You should act according to your nature.

Some are meant to lead, others to follow.

Some struggle, others take things easy.

Some are strong, and others weak.

Some play it safe, others take risks.

Christ sees everything as it is.

He sees God at work in all events, and does not usurp control.

Keeping in the center of the Divine will, he accomplishes all things.

The Tao of Christ, verses 28-29

I encourage everyone to order the book/buy the ebook, since it is a wonderful addition to anyone interested in, or familiar with Christianity who also wants a fresh perspective on the spiritual world. Paperback version can be purchased here. Marshall also has a wonderful podcast by the same name which can be found here.

For those who want to experience the full force of the original Tao Te Ching translated into English, I would recommend this audio version on YouTube since it is such a beautiful reading and translation. For those interested in a more introductory version using Christian terminology, I recommend The Tao of Christ.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, subscribe to my feed or bookmark this site for more posts like this.

Zach Van Houten

Grace Here and Now

By Zach Van Houten

I have been absent for a while now on social media. I deactivated my Facebook account and cut ties with a few different groups due to a growing feeling of claustrophobia and self-consciousness. Election cycles tend to do that to me. I feel more hesitant than ever to share my thoughts and feelings when I know tensions are high.

During this hiatus, I have spent time digging into my inner world, and uncovering wounds and neuroses that are difficult to see when actively engaging in social life. The smaller my world, the better, at times. That is at least one way I find solace.

I can’t say I am at peace, but I do have more clarity than I have had in a while. It has been easier to see patterns of self-deception and self-aggrandizement when offline. These two tend to occur when I want purpose and meaning in life, and feel I have to create it. Christianity in particular has left a void in my life that is hard to explain.

I didn’t just grow up in the church. It was my social life, and my home life. My experience of being homeschooled in a evangelical family meant that I ate, slept and breathed my religion. I wanted to be a pastor, and/or worship leader. I wanted to save souls. I studied the Bible and prayed daily. It wasn’t just a part of my life, it was central to it.

So when I broke ties with the church I tried to act as if I had moved on to something better. It is true that I had moved on to something more authentic for where I was at, but not necessarily more grounding or comforting.

The comfort of the church had begun to wear off before I left. It wasn’t all roses. I had been privately suffering from intense loneliness, insecurity, and depression. This made it hard for me to ever sink fully into grace. Although when I had, it had been a wonderful and liberating experience.

The parable of the prodigal son is a story that represents the heart of God for me. In the story the obedient son, while never leaving the Father’s side, did not experience the love of the Father in the same way the wayward one did. The reason being that the prodigal son knew his imperfection, while the obedient son who never left the Father was full of pride and was unforgiving to the son who had left.

Grace can grow in us as we experience our shadow selves, and find that we are more imperfect than we had imagined ourselves to be. In fact, being an individual is to be vastly imperfect, since we are by definition considering our small sense of self as if we were separate from the entire universe.

Being human carries a sense of constant inferiority and urge towards growth. While life teaches us to evolve, the desire to transcend ourselves cannot ever be accomplished by improving the separate self. It is only when we are liberated from this small egocentric view that we can have peace.

Christ teaches me to humble myself, and relate to the mystery in a way that allows me to be me, rather than feeling I have to carry myself up some mountain of purity. I can allow myself the space for failing and know that God can still use me anyway. In fact, opening to grace helps me to be more patient with the faults of others. We are all works-in-progress.

While the idea of God is not something everyone is comfortable with, I have found great solace in making peace with my old faith through prayer and seeking the true heart of the gospel.

Prayer for me is an act of humble opening to the mystery, and to the intelligence beyond myself. I can ask and trust, and in this simple gesture I feel more connected and attuned.

I don’t feel it needs to be much more complicated than that. Christ is an example of this simple trust and active spirituality. He inspires me to see that my life here is not in vain, and that I am meant to follow this path. I am still as much a Christ follower now as I ever was. All the twists and turns only deepen my relationship with Him, and help me to see the great mystery in new ways.

I think we need more authentic disciples of Christ in the world now than ever before. Not Bible thumping or tribal exclusivism, but real deep communion with the heart of the gospel. If we get in touch with that, what a difference it would make.

Thanks for reading.

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Image credit: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_in_the_Land_Bountiful.jpg

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Non-Violence As A Lifestyle

By Zach Van Houten

Non-violence is not just about abstaining from physical violence.

It is also a commitment to the ideal of non-violent communication.

These are obviously ideals, and sometimes life puts us in non-ideal situations. And the commitment to these ideals does not give us the right to look down on those who do not adhere to the same values.

But peaceful communication, what is called in Buddhism “Right Speech”, is a step towards a more harmonious world. This means we seek to listen deeply and compassionately to all, even those we deeply disagree with. We strive to share love with all, even those considered unlovable. We seek to avoid harsh statements and mockery of others, seeing all people as worthy of respect by virtue of their existence.

To those undergoing persecution and trials in this life, we support your dignity. And we know that suffering often leads to violence. I do not support violence but I support human dignity. Those who are capable and privileged to use nonviolent means, should consider the gift of nonviolence as a approach to the achievement of peace. We should accept all beings on the basis of the inherent dignity of Being, and from that place work to achieve peaceful ends with the least amount of harm caused in the process.

We cannot pursue peace until we have released the hate we carry in ourselves, and commit to the process of internal and external healing.

Blessings 🙏☸☮