A few words about Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy

Syntheism in its current form relies on a few key philosophical ideas, such as relationalism and monism, that can be viewed as our dogmas and core beliefs, all of which are subject to creative revision whenever this is deemed appropriate or necessary in light of technological innovations and scientific progress. It is also an umbrella term for those spiritual and religious narratives that are more believable and cohesive than others, as we continue to learn about and explore the nature of the universe, life and human existence.

The narratives of our life stories equip us with the socio-cultural tools and resources to make sense of our experiences, such as basic assumptions about how the world operates and our place in it, and how we relate to one another, even if we’ve never articulated our beliefs explicitly (“This is God’s will”, “Things happen for a reason”, “Nothing happens for a reason at all”). It is a simple psychological fact that we are not always aware of the narrative that guides our decisions and orchestrates our emotions, unless we happen to make a traumatic or other life-changing experience that forces us to readjust to a new reality.

We take inspiration from various thinkers such as Zoroaster, Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, Alfred North Whitehead, Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Karen Barad, Stuart Kauffman and Quentin Meillassoux, but also from literature, art and participatory culture. (Such philosophical concepts and big names shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Syntheism becomes whatever Syntheists choose to make of it, and that people are free to contribute in any way they deem fit—whatever deepens and enhances their religious experience. After all, Syntheism is an open-source religion, based on co-creation and dialogue.)

For Spinoza, the relentless pursuit of the truth was nothing less than a spiritual practice and exercise in attaining fulfillment and blessedness in this life—through attitude awareness and an intuitive, comprehensive understanding of the workings of nature or God. According to the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, this ethical commitment to truthfulness is the historical link between the religionist’s quest for the divine and the scientist’s mission to map the true order of things (see here).

According to Spinoza’s metaphysics, all that is, is in God; there is one substance with an infinite number of attributes; all modes are interconnected. A substance is an entity which can be conceived through itself, as its own ground. There can’t be two such self-caused, self-sustaining substances, as in René Descartes’ mind-body dualism, because that scenario would require a third substance to mediate between the first two substances, which then requires a fourth substance that mediates between the first three, ad infinitum. The sole substance there is, is by necessity infinite, boundless and eternal, and thus encompasses all that exists. As such, it can be identified with God: “Whether we say that all things happen according to the laws of nature, or are ordered by the decree and direction of God, we say the same thing.

An attribute is what the human intellect understands as constituting and expressing the essence of God, such as matter (res extensa) and mind (res cogitans), although there are infinitely more attributes to which we have no access. That is, res extensa and res cogitans are not two separate entities or two distinct substances, but rather two aspects or features of the divine: “The mind and the body are one and the same individual, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension. (…) The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.” The things that make up the natural world are finite modes, or modifications of God’s attributes, each operating according to their predetermined nature (thinking within res cogitans, movement within res extensa). All such things, including human beings, rely on and are connected to one other. There can be nothing outside or separate from God. (Scholars have been arguing whether Spinoza’s monism amounts to pantheism or pan-en-theism, since God is infinitely more than the natural world plus the ideas we form of it.)

Spinoza dismissed anthropomorphic concepts by which we attribute human qualities to God—as the loving and caring father or the ruthless king. Spinoza’s all-encompassing, immanent God is not restricted or limited by anything, but truly omnipotent and thus capable of creating literally everything. There was no decision prior to the creation of the world, nor did any particular motivation cause God to create it. This further entails that there is no purpose in life, according to which certain things or events, after careful planning and consideration, were created in favor of other things and events. Moralistic concepts of sin, guilt and innocence have thus no place in Spinoza’s theology.

As finite modes, we are sparks of God’s unlimited power, although this power it not evenly distributed among all modes. A person’s desire to persist in existence and maximize their power (conatus) is identical with that person’s essence, since there is only one essence, one substance, which is uninhibited and incessant creativity. As Spinoza put it: “Desire is the essence of man.” The desire to persist in existence and increase our power is identical with the pursuit of joy and pleasure. According to Spinoza’s attribute parallelism, intelligence increases in proportion to the increase in the power to act, and vice versa. It is therefore everyone’s sacred duty to live to their full potential and to increase their powers through friendship, and under the guidance of reason.

Due to the ateleological nature of God, the conatus is undirected and aimless—there is no purpose in existence, but only a first cause (= God) that gave birth to a multitude of relations. Hence we do not strive for or want something because we deem it good; on the contrary, we deem a thing good because we desire and want it. Because our concept of the world depends on random encounters and experiences—on how other bodies have acted upon our own—, we ought to educate ourselves and make use of reason in order to understand cause and consequence, and how all events in life relate to each other.

In order to attain knowledge about the causal and logical order of the world, one must overcome the false and toxic ideas that prevent us from living to the fullest. Since we are all connected to one another, good is synonymous with that which enhances one’s life, while evil or bad is anything which lowers one’s vitality and activity: “As far as good and evil are concerned, they indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another.” That is, “one and the same thing can, at the same time, be good, and bad, and also indifferent.

But good and evil are not a matter of opinion. Due to external influences and our distorted view of the world, our power fluctuates over time, and Spinoza therefore studied and mapped our emotional inner worlds and passions. Our emotional states have often to do with imagination and distortion, so we often desire what weakens and contaminates us. That is, suffering is linked to ignorance of our true nature, whereas genuine happiness and self-love are linked to knowledge and wisdom. In other words, what is good or bad varies from person to person, from context to context, but it is nevertheless objectively beneficial or harmful to each person of a largely similar constitution who happens to be in that specific situation.

This further explains why there is no real conflict between self-interest and altruism: “The more each one seeks his own advantage, and strives to preserve himself, the more he is endowed with virtue, or what is the same, the greater is his power of acting according to the laws of his own nature, that is, of living under the guidance of reason. But men most agree in nature when they live according to the guidance of reason. Therefore, men will be most useful to one another, when each one most seeks his own advantage.” (Spinoza refers here to a more spiritual, deeper kind of intelligence—an intuitive, comprehensive understanding of existence, as the one virtue that we can freely share with one another, without resorting to envy or resentment.)

Although it is impossible to squeeze Spinoza’s philosophy into one blog post, it should be noted that his account of human psychology resonates with research findings in neurology and psychology. His faith in reason may seem a bit odd to us 21st century people, and his determinism lacks the notion of emergence (which defeats determinism). But his analysis of our emotions and passions, and how they cause the inevitable mess in which we find ourselves far too often, is solid and impressively precise. Reason isn’t above nor superior to our passions, because both reason and emotion are equally legitimate parts of our condition, and the conflict between them arises from ignorance: “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.

After all, Spinoza’s philosophy is all about self-empowerment through attitude awareness and affect regulation. It gives us a sense of interrelatedness and embeddedness. Intelligence is inherently joyous, and those are free who live to their fullest, who engage in the pursuit of pleasure and knowledge.

Syntheism and the Creative Commons

Dear Friends

One of Syntheism’s utopian beliefs and practices is that ideas should not be owned by anybody but deserve to be shared and spread to as many people as possible, We call this the Free The Meme principle. This is why we are proud to acknowledge that all the material published here at syntheism.org is also free for all to use under the rules of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. So go ahead and let the Syntheist meme take over your mind too.

Who Speaks for Syntheism?

Many people believe that there is an afterlife with rewards or punishments based on how well we live. Yet this is not irrefutable evidence this exists. What, then, is the basis of this belief?

If you ask people why they believe (or don’t believe) this to be true, you will get varying responses. Nearly all of them neatly fall into the three categories of persuasion Aristotle identified over 2,000 years ago:

  • Ethos (appeal to authority) – The Bible / The Pope / My pastor / My guru / Richard Dawkins / some guy on the Syntheism.org blog says it is true (or not), therefore I believe it
  • Logos (appeal to logic) – This argument (for or against) is true, therefore I believe it
  • Pathos (appeal to emotion) – This emotional experience (or lack thereof) happened to me, therefore I believe it

Most people misunderstand authority. If I were to claim equal authority with the Pope, no one would believe me. Why? Is it because he is sanctioned by God, or the vast resources at his command, or the linkage to thousands of years of history, while I have none of those things?

No! It turns out that the source of his authority is that millions of people believe that one or more of these reasons is sufficient. For example, when the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split in 1054, the Pope instantly lost authority with those in the Eastern Orthodox church. The only thing that changed were people’s beliefs about his claim to authority!

Why should this matter to Syntheists? Authority is an inescapable part of life. No one has the time and skill to validate every thing they hear and act on. It is so ingrained that we rarely even think about it.

Sytheism cannot appeal to a creator God or a divine book for authority. Everything we do around Syntheism falls in the realm of personal opinion (including this post!) So ultimately, YOU are the authority for Syntheism. Therefore, it is only appropriate that you help us create it. That’s the real meaning of “religion in the making”!

The role of capital in Syntheist communities

“The problem is that human creativity is lured into pouring all its energy into maintaining the system; this even applies to the theorists who are critical of the system. Only by stepping off, taking a position on the side-lines and constructing a world in parallel outside the system can the syntheist utopia be realised. A revolution always starts with a subtraction. We must retire to the position where, at long last, we can see the social entirety and then only act on the basis of this entirety, rather than devote ourselves to patching up a fundamentally defective system.”
Bard, Alexander; Söderqvist, Jan (2014-10-06). Syntheism – Creating God in the Internet Age (Kindle Locations 6260-6264). Stockholm Text. Kindle Edition.

Religions arise, at least in part, due to disparate wealth between social classes. Consider this quote from anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years:

“Where physical escape is not possible, what, exactly, is an oppressed peasant supposed to do? Sit and contemplate her misery? At the very least, otherworldly religions provided glimpses of radical alternatives. Often they allowed people to create other worlds within this one, liberated spaces of one sort or another. It is surely significant that the only people who succeeded in abolishing slavery in the ancient world were religious sects, such as the Essenes – who did so effectively by defecting from the larger social order and forming their own utopian communities. Or, in a smaller but more enduring example: the democratic states of northern India were all eventually stamped out by the great empires … but the Buddha admired the democratic organization of their public assemblies and adopted it as the model for his followers.”

Monetary practices are a core element of all the West’s major religions. Examples include the Debt Jubilee in Judaism, the pooling and sharing of possessions in the early Christian church, or Islam’s prohibitions on loaning at interest (also in the Bible). These limits were a check on excessive accumulation of wealth at the expense of others.

Many of the goals for Syntheistic monetary practices are little changed. Ensure every dividual can meet basic human needs. Prohibit practices that lead to debt slavery. Limit actions that lead to long-term general pain (environmental damage, permanent underclasses) for short-term dividual gain.

Attentionalism (see The Netocrats) teaches us that the netocrat/consumtariat class division is an inevitable outcome. Nonetheless, it would be preferable to limit the impact of this split to attention and experiences. As access to God under feudalism was democratized during capitalism, we wish to democratize access to capital under attentionalism.

Syntheist monetary practices must start with an understanding of value. Consider how value is shifted between members of a society. Graeber calls out three main channels:

Exchange

This is the classic buying and selling in the marketplace with which we are familiar. It also includes loans, leases, and anything else where we quantify how much must be given by each party for a given transaction.

Communism

 “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. While few people think of themselves as communists today, this channel of exchange is common, often without thinking. Strangers answer questions about the time, the weather, or when the next train will arrive. We borrow a stick of gum, a light, or a pen. Family and friends cover restaurant bills, watch children or pets, and loan tools.

None of these involve cash or a debit card. Note how we often use exchange words like “borrow” and “loan” even when we are not keeping a ledger – exchange language is pervasive! The amount of exchange heavily depends on familiarity and trust. While we don’t quantify these precisely, we do notice imbalance. Someone always borrowing a cigarette eventually will find their circle of friends shrinking!

Hierarchy

Taxation, tithes, and slavery are all examples where value flows because of power differences. Those in power can compel those of a lower status to fund wars, build cathedrals, and work to exhaustion – or else.

The choice of channel is driven by many factors. These four appear to be primary:

Closeness of Relations

Smaller groups can function very well with little exchange or hierarchy. As group size increases, the need for interaction between unfamiliar agents increases. While this is not an issue for a stick of gum, few people will leave their children with someone they have not vetted. Hence the tendency for exchange as an arbiter between relative strangers.

Abundance / Scarcity

Economics arose primarily driven by the problem of how to allocate scarce resources. As scarcity increases, the more incentive there is to hoard a resource and only release it for maximum compensation. This can also apply if something is abundant now, yet may become scarce in the future.

Cost of “Guard Labor”

Negotiating, contracting, documentation, securing, and auditing scarce resources increase the costs of exchange and hierarchy.  Interestingly enough, economist Samuel Bowles estimates that over a fifth of the U.S. is employed in guard labor. This is driven by the heavy focus on exchange and hierarchy in early-2000s economic systems.

Agent Relativity

Class differences tend to lead to exchange, which is often a gateway to hierarchy. Kings can demand one-time tributes, which then turn into ongoing taxes. The rich are not inclined to let the poor take “whatever they need”, yet helping someone who is in the same country club is a different matter.

Given these considerations, what should be done? One recommendation for Syntheists is to discourage the use of money between members. Events like Burning Man show that it is possible for larger communities to function for short periods without money. This results in closer relationships and lower waste. It also reduces the power of wealth and hierarchy within the community.

Another idea is to explore the use of decentralized currencies such as Bitcoin. These currencies enable transactions between agents anywhere in the world with extremely low transaction fees. There is also a tremendous amount of innovation in this space worth watching.

On a related note, Syntheist communities can also experiment with locally-issued currencies. Bernard Lietaer, author of The Future of Money, notes that currencies based on crop harvests and other perishable items were common during the High Middle Ages, with tremendous benefits to local community members. Even today, concepts such as Time Dollars (global), Ithaca Hours (NY/USA), and Fureai Kippu (Japan) show that local currencies can provide a way for communities to share resources more effectively than with national currencies.

It may be possible to combine several of these ideas to provide a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) for Syntheists. A GBI is a distribution of resources without limits on how they are used. The idea is that dividuals can meet their basic needs without having to sell their time or hoard resources. The effect on poverty is obvious. The concern is that many would work if they did not have to. However, many rich people continue to work for other reasons. Most people want to do more than just sit around all day and would actually do what they love instead of what is required to make a living.

For example, a Syntheistic community would create its own decentralized currency. Each agent would receive a fixed amount of currency for common resources owned by the community – businesses, software, stocks, bonds, etc. As the value of the common resources went up or as resources are added, new shares would be created to maintain the value of a share. The new shares would be given to new agents through some mechanism such as voting or invites (similar to beta sotware). Why would members contribute to a common resource set versus keeping them for themselves? To gain attention! Similar drivers are seen in charities all over the world.

As you can see, money and religion are not opposed to each to, yet are closely related. It is an area ripe for further study and discussion, so please share your ideas and use this as you see fit!

The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan circa 1805-9 by William Blake 1757-1827

On Surface Tension and the Fathoming of the Depth Beneath the Storm to Come

There is a stone I wish to throw in the pond, wondering what ripples will be brought back to me.

Concerning the surface tension of names and the depths that rears beneath them, the trinitary concepts of Being, Nothing and the movement of Difference are standard, easily hooked up onto the traditions of philosophy from Parmenides to post structural process philosophers. The point where there is a storm brewing is Utopia – the Kingdom Come – whose injunction has found a peculiar home on the horizon, exactly by being both obscured by the cynicism of our age fueled by the doubt that makes us question the very goodness of our place in the world, but also by being this ephemeral thing over on the edge of possibility. Here the concept is actually mysterious and not clear-cut while its name is temptingly and trickingly clear.

Here the concept cannot be contained by an abstraction as its content wanders towards the very possibility of community and asks for a concrete realization of exactly the space in between being and its possible not-yet future that hovers over and beyond it. It is exactly in case of Syntheos/Utopia that we can fathom the risk involved, as the idea or fantasy of the possible has been for millennia distracting communities from the here and now as they attempt to reify their fantasy, obscuring contact with being through their single minded focus on a specific mode of the possible future.

Naming these ‘gods’ and worshipping them is such a small step, compared to the problems that hover above us in the task of actually plotting the complex reality of the intricate communities that are motivated by myriads of vectors of desire that are implanted by the ancient regime of hyper-capitalism, and the question of how they can be inverted/converted/ecoverted into Utopia.

The congregation and mass itself plays on the surface tension wrought by the rearing depths of our mind and the spirit machines that fuel our desires. Utopia itself being the remnant of a promise intrinsic to the Abrahamic religions that made us forgive the problems of the current in expectancy of the kingdom come that would baptize reality in the injunction of the deluge of grace. In this sense Syntheism is formally identical to this grand historical movement of expectation for the future.

But how exactly is the waiting converted into action instead of pacifying us like it has done throughout the ages?

Syntheism in its co-creative rituals and Bacchanals have got the first miracle of Jesus down: turning water into wine, bringing people together in a new way, high on the contemplation of the possible. But what about kicking the money lenders out of the temple? A sermon on the mount? Shaming the Pharisees by revealing their fetish of law? And the longwinded battle of conversion through letters akin to the apostle Paul? These moments brought down a spiritual empire and instated a new one, pointing to the revolutionary character of the movement. It brought with it a concrete dialectic that charged the fort of the old, and converted it.

The devotional ritual for Syntheos should thus be (r)evolutionary in action, not merely some formal procession where attention to an abstraction is enacted.

It is these questions that lurk beneath the surface, fueling the storm that is brewing around the world. It is pointing us towards an meteorology of the spiritual-political-industrial complex and the search for the butterfly that is able to flap its wing in exactly the right way to make the Storm come.


Image: The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan in Whose Wreathings are Enfolded the Nations of the Earth, circa 1805-9, William Blake 1757-1827.

Hourtopia – a participatory artistic take on “The Infinite Now”

You may already be familar with the Syntheist concept of The Infinite Now – the idea of a transcendental experience within which all of time and history seems encapsulated into one single moment  and place in passing. While The Infinite Now is of course the name of the Syntheist baptism act, and as such a both dividual and communal event of immense importance, the concept also refers to kairos, the classic Greek concept of time as a short moment when everything happens at once, as distinct from kronos, time as pure duration.Hourtopia

An interesting and highly recommended online participatory art project with a similar theme is Hourtopia. Please feel most welcome to check it out at the Hourtopia web page or on Facebook and make your own artistic contribution.

Where and when does all of history seem encapsulated into a short time span and at a specific place in your own life? Would you even like to contribute to Hourtopia with a picture of your own Syntheist baptism act?

Affirmationism

Syntheism owes a lot to the classical philologist, essayist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). His controversial concept of the will to power was a reaction to the philosophical pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will to life. According to Schopenhauer, people are intoxicated with desire, whose lives therefore oscillate back and forth between boredom and pain because there is no natural end to the search for satisfaction but death. You quench your thirst, only to be thirsty again; and when you drink too much, you will be miserable or bored and longing for something other than beverages. The search for satisfaction continues and never stops, and it causes frustration, bitterness and unhappiness. Schopenhauer’s answer to this downward spiral was asceticism, detachment, self-denial.

Nietzsche inverts Schopenhauer’s cynical hedonism and invites his readers to seek creatively stimulating challenges beyond the confines of their comfort zone. He argues that happiness is an epiphenomenon of the search for excellence rather than an end in itself. He therefore champions man’s productive potential and promotes the affirmation of life, in spite of the iniquities of nature and history. Happiness lies in the exercise of one’s creative powers, in the joy of overcoming resistance, and one therefore wills resistance. In his naturalist worldview, the virtues and values we form indicate our physical condition as much as our sense of life. And when philosophers like Schopenhauer maintain that life is a nuisance, their judgment says more about their weariness of life than about life as such.

Nietzsche goes beyond René Descartes’ anthropocentric atomism. According to Nietzsche’s metaphysics, we are an inseparable part of the multitude of relations which constitute the world we inhabit. That is, one’s existence is entangled and intertwined with the history of the natural world—we can’t step back and look at life from afar. It is therefore impossible to estimate the true value of existence and of all the lives that had been lived plus the lives that will be lived in the future. In Nietzsche’s words: “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity’, be.” And further: “It is our needs that interpret the world, our drives and their ‘for’ and ‘against’.

It follows from his normative perspectivism that there are no moralistic facts, but only moralistic interpretations. He encourages his readers to overcome simplistic moralistic notions of life because man’s existence doesn’t serve a pre-ordained purpose: there is no secret message from God hidden behind the tears and bruises; there is no orchestrator behind the curtain. In the end, the world is immeasurably larger than man; it is indifferent towards his whims and wishes. After all, it is a simple scientific fact that the homo sapiens is not the measure of all things. And because we owe a lot to chance, we ought to develop a sense of gratitude (amor fati). Nietzsche promotes the affirmation of life that comes from an overflow of life rather than fatalism.

If we affirm one moment, we thus not only affirm ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.” And further: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it. (…) The highest state a philosopher can attain: to stand in a Dionysian relationship to existence—my formula for this is amor fati.

His normative perspectivism is far from relativism because he is interested in the hidden implications and practical consequences of societal norms: what our beliefs and values do with us, what behaviours they inspire. He explores the moralistic forces which compromise man’s creative potential and finds that political ideologies and religious doctrines operate according to the same logic as do breeding programmes for animals. An ideology not only provides a narrative framework which makes sense of man’s position in the world, but also produces a certain type of man who is humble and benign, and who causes no threat to the community and to those in power who have defined good and evil.

Nietzsche associates Abrahamic moralism with resentment. Moralism is for the bullied and ill-constituted who are seeking compensation and plotting revenge. The priests, in an effort to protect their communities from the corrosive and toxic forces within, have successfully persuaded their flock to redirect their anger and frustration: everyone is a sinner who stands in need of salvation, so rather than accusing each other, one must turn inwards and better oneself. In Nietzsche’s view, it is crucial to save people from the concept of salvation. His immoralism relies on the idea that one cannot accuse the world as if it had an intellect or will.

He intends to inspire people to attain the power to expand their lives freely and actively. In his words: “There is thereby a counterforce which continually reminds us that there is no exclusively moral-making morality, and that a morality which asserts itself to the exclusion of all other morality destroys too much sound strength and is too dearly bought by mankind. The non-conventional and deviating people, who are so often productive and inventive, must no longer be sacrificed: it must never again be considered as a disgrace to depart from morality either in actions or thought; many new experiments must be made upon life and society, and the world must be relieved from a huge weight of bad conscience. These general aims must be recognized and encouraged by all those upright people who are seeking truth.

Nietzsche’s ethical love of life begins with intellectual honesty. He insists that truthfulness is an act of pride and self-respect, as it takes courage to face the truth head on in any situation, even if the truth is unsettling and terrifying. For example, it is cynical to argue that people are better off when they don’t know about the complicatedness of modern life. Why not appreciate the complicatedness of it all? Why complain and get upset? As Nietzsche asks: “What if these truths could not give us this consolation we are looking for? Would that be an argument against them? What have these truths in common with the sick condition of suffering and degenerate men that they should be useful to them? It is, of course, no proof against the truth of a plant when it is clearly established that it does not contribute in any way to the recovery of sick people.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch engages in the pursuit of greatness and explores new ways in which to connect our minds and bodies with each other. This ideal man does not thrive on barbaric cruelty or an inflated sense of self-importance, nor does he “perpetrate cowardice against his own acts”, but has the courage and the confidence to “face what he already knows.” As the affirmationist par excellence, he or she is strong and resilient enough to take life’s hardships as an opportunity to exercise one’s powers and faculties. Resentment comes from a misplaced sense of entitlement. According to Nietzsche’s definition, the will to power is the will that wants its own expansion and intensification. And what people may need more than anything in our age of cynical hedonism is a safe and stimulating environment where they can throw off the shackles which prevent them from increasing their power to act.

The Law of Change

All conditioned things are unsatisfactory.
All conditioned things are impermanent.
All things are empty, devoid of intrinsic, independent nature

-The three marks of existence,
from the Pali Canon

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: neither all thy Piety or Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

-Omar Khayyám, the Rubaiyat

The hardest questions in life are asked in innocence:

Why did my dog pass away?

Why do we have to die?

If one thing defines an absolute truth about life, it’s that things change, and quite often for the individual, they change for the worse. It’s can be a somewhat depressing fact of the universe that life is hard. It’s full of full of dangerous things that seemingly are dead set on making our lives risky: disease, radiation, war, volcanoes, old age, fast moving objects, predators; the list goes on endlessly. It’s an experience so universal that one could conclude that it is time itself that is set against us. The passage of time eventually destroys anything and everything that is conditioned, buildings, empires, our loved ones, us.

If time is our enemy then, it makes it important to know its nature. But time is a tricky thing to define. Many definitions end up in circles, and trying to nail it down beyond the somewhat unsatisfying statement that “time is what clocks measure” is the topic of many arguments among both scientists and philosophers.

But one aspect of time that’s beyond reproach is the Moving Finger that Omar Khayyám addresses in his verse above:  the truth that time moves inexorably from the past and into the future, and while redemption, forgiveness and reparation may be found, there is no undoing of past mistakes. This is the Arrow of Time. Life has no save points. There is no [CTRL] + [Z] in physical reality.

But why exactly is this? Both classical and quantum mechanics fall short here. In mechanics, there is no particular reason why time has a direction. Consider a movie where two billiard balls collide perfectly, each going off in their own direction. Play this movie backwards, and there is no apparent problem: the motion of the balls backwards to collision and outwards to their initial positions seems to the human eye a perfectly reasonable proposition. This process is what’s known as reversible.

However, when we just have two billiard balls on our table, things are simple. But if we have a whole game of pool things become trickier. A cue ball smashing into the triangle of balls is a process that’s not completely impossible to reverse, but would take very careful measurement and setup of initial conditions to make all the balls move back together in a triangle and then spit out the cue ball with all their combined energy. You can be absolutely sure that this will not happen randomly. And as the game gets bigger, the complications to reversing processes become all but impossible.

Let’s now say we do something horrible: we light a tree on fire, make a movie of it, and play it in reverse. Now something in this picture strikes our intuitions (and hopefully also our conscience) as clearly wrong. Thermal fluctuations and atmospheric ashes do not direct themselves inwards, their turbulent flows becoming smooth, concentrating until the carbon glows red hot, and all this energy being used to split and then fuse oxidized carbon atoms together into an intricate matrix of carbohydrates and metals that is capable of sustaining itself by energy from the sun. This simply does not happen by itself. The process of burning a living thing is utterly irreversible, so take care if you are ever contemplating doing so.

To get a grasp of the extent of the physical reality that underlies this irreversibility, look around you. If you are reading this in the comfort of your home, your first impression may be that not much is happening. This is an illusion. Our perception is attuned to the narrow band of phenomena where saber-toothed tigers pounce and beautiful people dance, because these are the things we need to be able to react to in order to survive and reproduce. Nevertheless, the physical reality is that all things are constantly in a state of relative motion. Clouds look initially static as you gaze on them, but as you keep staring, it becomes apparent that they are in flux, shape shifting as they pass overhead. So it goes with windows, tables, computers, mountains, planets.

If all things then are in motion as time passes by, what in this is the cause of our loss and grief?

The examples of reversibility and irreversibility above show us something about nature: as soon as things get complicated, they also become irreversible. But why exactly is that?

The answer to both of these questions is one that’s purely probabilistic in nature. There are many ways that a game of pool can go after we hit the cue ball, but very, very few that land us back in the situation we started in. There are many ways that the particles of the tree can fly once it’s lit on fire, but incredibly few ways that they can fall back together to be a tree.

The Law of Hard Knocks then, to which Murphy’s Law is but a lemma, is that there are many, many more ways that things can go wrong than ways that they can go right. Leave things up to random chance, and the dice is overwhelmingly loaded against you. That’s life.

This law is mathematically codified in physics as The Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that as time passes, entropy in a closed system increases. Entropy is the property associated with the number of ways a given system can arrange itself. The Second Law is widely celebrated as the surest thing in science. Because it is an intrinsic property of systems of any real complexity, it’s not just that we can’t imagine how the universe would look without the Second Law, it’s that we can’t imagine any universe without it. The great physicist Arthur Eddington, who is credited for coining the concept of the Arrow of Time, once stated:

“The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation”

He also made it clear that the Arrow of Time, the property of time moving in one direction only, is solely a property of entropy. However, he also stated that even though it doesn’t have any other physical properties, it is immediately recognizable by consciousness. Any observable process that doesn’t make sense when run in reverse is subject to the Second Law. And the Second Law deems that as time passes by, all things must return to dust. Does it absolutely have to be this way? No, because the Second Law isn’t absolute. There’s a chance that things can randomly run in the opposite direction, but this chance is so vanishing small that it’s easier to regard it as impossible.

Entropy has some properties related to the human condition that are worth noting:

It is the mechanism that causes bad things to happen.

It is the mechanism of impermanence.

It does not map to any physical property except the configuration of matter and energy as it relates to something else. In other words, it has no essential nature, only relational nature.

These three properties map disturbingly well to the three marks of existence as witnessed by Buddha several thousand years ago, once again lending credence to the argument that the Second Law is all-pervading not just scientifically, but also on the scale of humanity.

So if all things are at the mercy of the Second Law, why is it then that we’re surrounded by order? Truly if we look around us there are a great many things that are set in order, much higher than it was when say, the Earth first cooled billions of years ago?

There is an aspect of entropy that seems to clash with itself: chaos can lead to order. Death can lead to life. All it takes is a mechanism that constrains entropy to rise in a certain way.  Because the Second Law states that entropy is always on the rise in a closed system, and systems aren’t generally closed. Think of a windmill: it’s an arrangement of matter that causes something very chaotic, the weather, to be turned into something very ordered, electricity. Though it causes turbulence and therefore increases entropy in its environment, internally in the mechanism, entropy is reduced.

Let’s go back and have another look at the burning tree example. As it turns out, there is a process that comes very close to describing our impossible reversed burn scenario of gas, ashes and energy turning back into a tree: the growing of the tree itself. Through photosynthesis and other self-organized metabolic pathways, the tree grows, taking in energy from the sun, carbon from the atmosphere, and minerals from the ground. How then is this not in conflict with the Second Law? Because the tree is not a closed system. The sun’s rays come from the nuclear processes taking place in its core, which are very high entropy, but the rays themselves transmit lower entropy to the tree which utilizes them to create itself. In other words, the seed of the tree creates constraints that limit the number of possible ways the future might look for the tree, until the seemingly impossible happens with a high probability: the miracle of life.

Likewise, if you eat an apple from the tree, you increase the entropy in the apple by digesting it, which then leads to a lowering of entropy locally in your organism and thereby staving off your own demise. It takes the death of the apple to support your life. All this happens because you and the tree and all life is carefully yet robustly arranged in a configuration that allows for entropy to flow out of one subsystem and into another, and as long as the total entropy for the system is on the rise, the Second Law is appeased. Internally in the sun, entropy is always rising and eventually it will die. But here on Earth, that process of dying is the root cause of weather, photosynthesis, brains, trees, apples, puppy dogs, space probes, ancient sages and great Arab poets. It is a misunderstanding that entropy must necessarily end in total death and decay. It can just as well turn to life.

These constraints on the flow of entropy are so carefully arranged that they can perpetuate themselves, flexibly and with small variations so that they can always respond to the changes in their environments, just like the windmill turns into the wind, propagating endlessly and diversifying into endless forms most beautiful and wonderful. We call this mechanism of constraint propagation Evolution, which is arguably the most elegant explanatory tool we’ve ever encountered. Evolution is the mechanism that has life locked in a dance with the Second Law, ever postponing the inevitable and doing so with unfathomable beauty and efficiency for the last 4 billion years, exactly because the universe is such a dangerous place. The very thing that is trying so hard to kill you is the source of all the complex forms you hold dear.

Life is hard. As soon as we’re old enough to perceive the world, this becomes apparent. But if life wasn’t hard, we’d have no reason to exist the way we do.

What remains is the question: what do we call this this eternal double-sided law of entropy and evolution, yin and yang, death and life, creation and destruction?

The Chinese named it the Dao. I choose to call it Entheos, the Divinity of Change, the dynamic of cause and effect.

It is the core conveyor of creativity in the universe, a law that transcends the material, independent on everything but the interconnectedness of all things.

The worship of Entheos is nothing other than effecting change, by creating the constraints and frames into which your life flows by itself.