Great Questions

Photo by Richard Todd

There are three great questions that have greatly interested me for much of my life. They regard: 

1) the nature of the world;
2) the nature of the self; and
3) the interrelationship of these two.

Intellectually, science is the main source of information about the first of these. I have looked broadly and deeply into the various sciences as I’ve sought a greater understanding of the nature of the world. Learning, when it is aimed at something one is really interested in, is a great joy. Learning the various sciences has been that for me. There is much about the modern world I find unpleasant. The richness and availability of scientific information makes up for much of it.

Equally important in the pursuit of this first question has been getting out and seeing the world directly. For me, the findings of science are primarily valuable to the extent they help me experience the world better. The writer Yu Tu Fuan (a particular favorite of mine), coined the term topophilia for the bond that one develops toward one’s environment. I am a topophiliac, and my desire to understand the world starts in my love for the particulars of the concrete world that I inhabit and know through my senses. 

To better understand the nature of the self, I engaged in a deep study of the sciences of the self, primarily psychology and neurology. But the primary way I have investigated the self is through direct observation of the workings of my mind, through meditation and other forms of mindfulness. I think of myself as a kind of psychonaut, a traveler in inner space. When I was much younger, I also used a variety of different mind altering drugs to enhance these journeys to the depths of inner space. 

My understanding of the third of these questions comes largely from the contemplation of the first two. It is from my understanding of the third of these that my particular vision of spiritual naturalism has formed. Spiritual naturalism differs from naturalism on the one hand and spirituality on the other, precisely in its bringing the two together – the outer and inner worlds; in letting each inform the other.

In the writings I have posted on SNS over the years, I have articulated my particular (and perhaps idiosyncratic) vision of the interrelationship of self and world as centered on the notion that the self is all otherness, or alternatively stated as “the self is an effect whose cause is elsewhere.” The “elsewhere” is our nervous system, the body that supports it, the various systems that keep bodies alive and that which brought life forth in the first place. In other words, the otherness is Nature itself. (Nature, with a capital N, is the word I use to signify the all-inclusive, creational process of the Universe.)

In saying that the self is all otherness, I have emphasized the first part of this statement “the self Is.” The “isness” of the self is the central reality for each of us. It is only through this isness that the otherness exists as an object of awareness. Isness is the pure subjectivity that underlies our ability to be objective. Spirituality grounds us in this pure subjectivity somewhat parallel to how science grounds us in objectivity. The world is alive inside of us as we are alive inside the world. That is the interrelationship of Nature and Self.

The idea that the self is an effect whose cause is elsewhere, can seem like a dismal view of the self. It certainly did to me when I first started to understand that this is what neuroscience is telling us. 

When I started to contemplate this finding from the subjective point of view, however, I saw it in a different light. I had a kind of revelation. That revelation is a little too ethereal to put into words, but the gist is that to experience the self as Otherness is the naturalistic equivalent of the mystics experience of oneness with God, or Tao, Allah, Nature or any of the other words expressing people’s idea of the Ultimate. That this can be experienced outside of supernaturalistic or highly metaphysical belief systems, is the revelation of spiritual naturalism.

* * * * *

Okay, I’ve gone all mystical here. I’ll try to bring this back to earth. When I started writing this piece, my objective was to emphasize the value of being able to write for SNS during the past ten plus years. Most of what I have written in the hundred plus articles I’ve posted here concern some discovery I have made in pursuit of one or other of the three great questions listed above.

Writing for an audience, an audience that I know contains some very knowledgeable and astute individuals, forces me to really think and focus. With each article written, I am able to transform a vague understanding of some topic into a clarified understanding. And frequently in the process of writing, I have discovered some new connections between the various elements of these complex questions. Finding new connections is always a joy for a person who ardently pursues big questions. 

So, what I had set out to say, and what I’ll say now, is Thank You to those who are readers of these articles. I have found it valuable to write for you, and I hope you have found some value in what I have written. 

Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.

1 thought on “Great Questions”

  1. Thank you for you work, I enjoy reading your posts. This one has penetrating insight into the nature of reality and our relationship with it. I was particularly struck by this: “The world is alive inside of us as we are alive inside the world.” When we can clarify our subjective understanding of the world, close the gap between our subjective perspective of Nature and its objective reality, then we can more effectively live in harmony with Nature. Perhaps this is the essence of Wu Wei.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.