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Do We Live in a Meaningless Universe?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012 03:57 By Michael Nagler, Metta Center for Nonviolence | Op-Ed

Western civilization could be considered a grand experiment, culminating in the three-plus centuries of the industrial revolution, to see if the universe could be accounted for without resorting to the concept of a Supreme Being or an overall purpose.  The experiment was a huge success.  It proved without a doubt that the universe can not be accounted for without introducing the concept of purpose; life could not have come about by chance — as Ervin Lazlo puts it, “pure chance…does not appear to be a significant factor in the evolution of life;” the human being cannot be described as a separate, finite, physical fragment doomed to compete for diminishing resources, but a (potentially) conscious actor in the fulfillment of the design that biologist Sally Goerner alludes to above.

If the physical universe were not governed by laws, science would not be possible; in the same way, if there were not laws governing the spiritual universe within human nature (and all nature), great mystics like Jesus, the Buddha, and in our own age Mahatma Gandhi would not have been able to make their tremendous discoveries or, if they did, to communicate them to the rest of humanity.

The existence of these spiritual laws is what enabled Gandhi to say, in 1909 when his movement was at a low ebb and his opponents determined to not yield one inch to his demands, “I was perfectly indifferent to the numerical superiority of my opponents.”  Because, while numbers were on the opponents’ side — along with weapons, money, and the other accouterments of force — every spiritual law was against them; primarily the overriding law of unity to which all sages and most of modern science attest, which is the mother of all spiritual laws and which we can never break, though we stubbornly work at breaking ourselves against it.

This is why soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are killing themselves in record numbers — or living lives of hell when they return.  And why a U.S. Marine who handed out food and blankets to tsunami victims in 2004 said, “I have been serving my country for 34 years and this is the first day I’ve gotten any fulfillment out of it.”  One simple way of describing a future we all want might be, a future where we can get 34 years of fulfillment from our work for maybe a day or two of waste!

Thanks to the universality of these laws any one of us can master the “science” of Satyagraha, as Gandhi did, and be able to redress the evils of our time without perpetuating them.  The science of Satyagraha is harder to master than math or physics, because the latter are objective — and because they are still, at present, so entrenched in our media, our education — our entire culture.  Even some scientists, who should know better, go on describing reality as the motion of material particles a hundred years after the very existence of separate, material particles fled like shadows in the glare of quantum theory.  Such is the power of an entrenched worldview.

But if we practice Satyagraha and explain to others that it is based on principles now supported both by the best of modern science and the enduring wisdom of humanity down the ages, we are bound, in the long run, to overcome the dismal, dehumanizing worldview that is causing vast suffering in the world.  We have somehow created a system that draws upon the lowest, most destructive drives of our evolutionary heritage; but we engaging the best of which we are capable.  We will be holding up a much higher image of human nature and the “compassionate design” of the universe that is not only what all of us deeply want but happens to be grounded in Truth.

We can get far in this work with only two founding principles, which we do not need to take on faith; we can hold them as hypotheses and test them out in our own experiences:  that there are spiritual laws in the universe, and they can be discovered, and used; and that despite all appearances — and here I will use the exact words of my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran — “love flows at bottom in the heart of every human being.”

It follows naturally from the first principle, the “compassionate design” of the universe, that “there is enough in the world for everyone’s need” — the cornerstone of Gandhi’s economics.  It follows from the second that there is no conflict that does not have a win-win solution if we can only discover it (which is usually a matter of knowing what our real needs and those of others are) — that there is no offender who cannot be redeemed, no opponent who cannot be won over.

That the universe has a meaning, that it is pervaded by spiritual forces that every one of us can use to fulfill that meaning is the Good News of the 21st Century.  Nonviolence is as native to this world as violence is inevitable in the “classical” view, often called dogmatic materialism.  That view is clinging stubbornly to life, even though it made us feel “like gypsies in the universe,” as one scientist put it, where the most important things about us — our ability to feel, to love — were explained away rather than celebrated.  It is high time to lay it to rest and we have every resource now at our disposal to manifest the brighter alternative.

Michael Nagler

Michael Nagler founded the Metta Center for Nonviolence.


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Do We Live in a Meaningless Universe?

Wednesday, 11 January 2012 03:57 By Michael Nagler, Metta Center for Nonviolence | Op-Ed

Western civilization could be considered a grand experiment, culminating in the three-plus centuries of the industrial revolution, to see if the universe could be accounted for without resorting to the concept of a Supreme Being or an overall purpose.  The experiment was a huge success.  It proved without a doubt that the universe can not be accounted for without introducing the concept of purpose; life could not have come about by chance — as Ervin Lazlo puts it, “pure chance…does not appear to be a significant factor in the evolution of life;” the human being cannot be described as a separate, finite, physical fragment doomed to compete for diminishing resources, but a (potentially) conscious actor in the fulfillment of the design that biologist Sally Goerner alludes to above.

If the physical universe were not governed by laws, science would not be possible; in the same way, if there were not laws governing the spiritual universe within human nature (and all nature), great mystics like Jesus, the Buddha, and in our own age Mahatma Gandhi would not have been able to make their tremendous discoveries or, if they did, to communicate them to the rest of humanity.

The existence of these spiritual laws is what enabled Gandhi to say, in 1909 when his movement was at a low ebb and his opponents determined to not yield one inch to his demands, “I was perfectly indifferent to the numerical superiority of my opponents.”  Because, while numbers were on the opponents’ side — along with weapons, money, and the other accouterments of force — every spiritual law was against them; primarily the overriding law of unity to which all sages and most of modern science attest, which is the mother of all spiritual laws and which we can never break, though we stubbornly work at breaking ourselves against it.

This is why soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are killing themselves in record numbers — or living lives of hell when they return.  And why a U.S. Marine who handed out food and blankets to tsunami victims in 2004 said, “I have been serving my country for 34 years and this is the first day I’ve gotten any fulfillment out of it.”  One simple way of describing a future we all want might be, a future where we can get 34 years of fulfillment from our work for maybe a day or two of waste!

Thanks to the universality of these laws any one of us can master the “science” of Satyagraha, as Gandhi did, and be able to redress the evils of our time without perpetuating them.  The science of Satyagraha is harder to master than math or physics, because the latter are objective — and because they are still, at present, so entrenched in our media, our education — our entire culture.  Even some scientists, who should know better, go on describing reality as the motion of material particles a hundred years after the very existence of separate, material particles fled like shadows in the glare of quantum theory.  Such is the power of an entrenched worldview.

But if we practice Satyagraha and explain to others that it is based on principles now supported both by the best of modern science and the enduring wisdom of humanity down the ages, we are bound, in the long run, to overcome the dismal, dehumanizing worldview that is causing vast suffering in the world.  We have somehow created a system that draws upon the lowest, most destructive drives of our evolutionary heritage; but we engaging the best of which we are capable.  We will be holding up a much higher image of human nature and the “compassionate design” of the universe that is not only what all of us deeply want but happens to be grounded in Truth.

We can get far in this work with only two founding principles, which we do not need to take on faith; we can hold them as hypotheses and test them out in our own experiences:  that there are spiritual laws in the universe, and they can be discovered, and used; and that despite all appearances — and here I will use the exact words of my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran — “love flows at bottom in the heart of every human being.”

It follows naturally from the first principle, the “compassionate design” of the universe, that “there is enough in the world for everyone’s need” — the cornerstone of Gandhi’s economics.  It follows from the second that there is no conflict that does not have a win-win solution if we can only discover it (which is usually a matter of knowing what our real needs and those of others are) — that there is no offender who cannot be redeemed, no opponent who cannot be won over.

That the universe has a meaning, that it is pervaded by spiritual forces that every one of us can use to fulfill that meaning is the Good News of the 21st Century.  Nonviolence is as native to this world as violence is inevitable in the “classical” view, often called dogmatic materialism.  That view is clinging stubbornly to life, even though it made us feel “like gypsies in the universe,” as one scientist put it, where the most important things about us — our ability to feel, to love — were explained away rather than celebrated.  It is high time to lay it to rest and we have every resource now at our disposal to manifest the brighter alternative.

Michael Nagler

Michael Nagler founded the Metta Center for Nonviolence.


Hide Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus