Thoughts on Immortality: From a Skeptical Philosopher Who Doesn’t Want to Be Decieved, But Sees Potential in Ibn Arabi, and Spacetime Smearing
As anyone who’s read this blog recently knows, this has been a time of loss in my life. And this has lead me to return to questions that once seemed much less interesting to the philosophical side of me. Like if philosophy should provide comfort in the face of loss, death, pain, etc.
This post will advance a theory of immortality based in Sufi philosophy, and contemporary quantum physics, and some detours in neuropsych, and theories of belief. A wild ride indeed, but one full of hope.
Neuro-Agnosticism: A Neurological Approach to the Issue of God and Immortality
I’ve long ago given up ‘believing’ the religion I was taught as a child. Over the past few years, I’ve often described myself as “neuro-agnostic,” a neologism of my own devising, by which I mean the fact that I think the human brain is wired, in at least in the set of configurations from the past several millennia of recorded history, to want something like a God. Anyone who’s studied basic neuroscience knows that human brains are “pattern completion” machines. When something is missing, we guess. When there are parts, we try to devise a whole. When there’s a tendency, we extrapolate.
God is the largest pattern of which our brains can conceive. God generally has all the perfections we can imagine, all combined, no matter the contradictions, on one notion. And with pattern completing brains, it’s natural to see this in the world, as it’s necessary complement, because that’s the way our brains are made. Evolution, of course, made the brain this way, and this would lead us to believe that completing patterns, and perhaps even a belief in something like God, was somehow good for the survival and flourishing of our species. And perhaps still is. Certainly people seem happier when they believe in something like a God, for whatever that’s worth.
And yet, the very same brains now generally see something like God as irrational. We see no evidence for it, and the hankering for evidence produced the science which produced so much change in our physical worlds. Yet there is a sort of psychological efficacy to God. It impacts how people act, think, and feel. Certainly that is real, as real as a psychosomatic illness! But does that mean we should all just delude ourselves in believing in something we can’t see?
The same goes with notions of immortality, at least of the personal sort. No-one who believes in science can find any reason to support any notion of personal immortality. We don’t see anything to disprove its possibility, per se, just as with God. But we don’t see any evidence of it either. Except, perhaps, psychologically. As someone who has lost someone who I love dearly in the recent past, I can testify, it feels unjust, and downright impossible, that this person who was such a dynamic, vivid person in the recent past, can simply be ‘gone.’ My rational brain, the brain that relies on evidence and reasoning, whatever we mean by ‘reasoning,’ simply sees no evidence of immortality. But my gut, soul, whatever you call it, finds this loss of this person’s presence simply incomprehensible. We all know, however, that this feeling that immortality must exist fades as the lost love one is gone longer and longer. And this leads me to believe that this sense of impossibility is based in feeling more than anything else.
It’s easy to simply dismiss this ‘gut’ feeling as emotion, and hence, irrational. Neuroscience shows us that our feelings arise from the limbic system, which is tied into maps of our bodies. Our bodies react to things, our brains map these changes, and release chemicals that “modulate” the way the brain globally processes information, hence the description of these chemicals as “neuromodulators.” These are the “mood” chemicals, such as serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine (which is moderated by adrenaline), etc. Mood oversimplifies, because these chemicals, depending on the extent to which they are released and absorbed in particular areas of the brain, then induce more specific neural shifts. Together, the symphony we call feelings emerge, and give rise to distinct emotions, like anger, fear, happiness, joy, ecstasy, and all the shades in between.
Those without properly functioning emotional systems, contrary to what many might think, turn out to be profoundly irrational people. Antonio Damasio and others recount how those with damage to specific “emotion” centers in the brain tend to make terrible decisions. They can do rational cost-benefit analyses, but seem to lack the ability to form or relate to the values that determine how and why to deploy cost-benefit analyses. If you can weigh pros and cons, but can’t figure out why you want good over bad, for you or others, you’re likely to make terrible decisions, at least, according to the criterion of most humans, and likely, evolution itself. We were evolved with emotions precisely because we are not only reasoning machines, but valuing machines .
And so to dismiss the gut level feeling that there must be something like personal immortality, or a God, is to oversimplify what is meant by ‘reason,’ of the most used and abused terms in the history of human theorizing. Any attempt to define precisely what “reason” is is quite likely to use unreasonable arguments if it is to be believable, and to be unbelievable, which is to say, ridiculous or trivial, if it doesn’t. All of which is a fancy way of saying that recourse to reason isn’t perhaps the best way to address this problem.
For if reason and feeling are two sides of the way we process the world, whether we call this thinking or otherwise, and it seems the first deals mostly with pattern completion, due to the structure of the neural nets in our brains, and the second deals with value systems, this just gets us back to the same place, namely, that humans seem programmed to want something like God, or personal immortality, and this seems part of our evolutionary heritage. What to make of this, however, is another story.
Either way, this is why, when people ask me things like whether or not I believe in God, I usually respond in ways that confuse most folks. My standard joke response is, “I’m a philosopher, how much time do you have? Do you really want me to start talking about this issue?” But if people really want to know, I’ve often said things like, “I’m a neuroagnostic, I think our brains are wired in such a way that we can’t not, on some level, believe in a God, whether or not there’s anything there, and that this is a side effect of the pattern completing nature which evolution used to construct our brains.”
To Believe in God? The Paradoxes of Belief
But does that mean we should “believe in God?” Ultimately, this might be a false question. The binary nature of “to believe” or “not believe” is something created by dogmatist approaches to religion, in which one is either saved or not, part of the religion or not, etc. Real life seems to happen in shades of grey. Many who “say” they are believers in a particular religion don’t “act” like believers, and many “non-believers” act quite like those who believe, in theory, should.
And the issue of belief is much more complex than most of us tend to take it to be. Do I believe in Santa Claus? Well, I certainly believe that this notion impacts the world quite profoundly, in everything from commerce to the way we raise our children, decorate our houses, etc. So Santa Claus is definitely “real,” though also “imaginary.” Mickey Mouse, or any “imaginary” character, like Hamlet, is quite “real” in its way. I can have long conversations with people about whether or not Hamlet really meant to do this or that, even though this person isn’t “real.” Do I “believe” in Hamlet? Certainly I believe he exists as an idea, and one that feels real, has contours, features, etc.
Is Hamlet more “real” than my couch? Certainly I know that I can physically touch my couch, and that generally when I am in my living room, it hasn’t vanished. The same with the Shakespeare book in which Hamlet exists, in his own way. Do I believe in my couch’s existence the same way as I do Hamlet? What about the word “Hamlet”? Is that material?
Still, there are many immaterial things, things that only have indirect effects in the world, that we believe in. I have no evidence that anyone feels or thinks like I do, and yet, I treat other people like they have interior worlds of experience like mine. Based on indirect evidence, like what people say or do, it seems like they must have feelings, thoughts, desires, passions, etc. But I have no more evidence of this than it’s material effects. The same with Hamlet, who only seems to exist, materially at least, in the ways in which physical humans talk and act in the physical world.
And yet, we call Hamlet and God “imaginary,” but not the notion that other people have interior worlds. Why is “faith” in the existence of feelings and thoughts in other people reasonable, yet “faith” in God unreasonable? Most likely because when the body stops working, the interior world seems to vanish in people, at least as far as we can tell by indirect effects. And when interact with people’s bodies, it seems like their interior world interplays with their physical bodies, there’s a way to interact indirectly with this interior world. And yet, many attest to the fact that they interact with God in their interior worlds. Or that they have a “sense” of how Hamlet “thinks.”
I’m not trying to say that therefore we should all start believing in God. But rather, that the difference between believing in God, Hamlet, or the interior worlds of other people aren’t fundamentally different kinds of things. They are differences in degree. There is more evidence that people have interior worlds, less for Hamlet, less for God, because only some people seem to interact with God, and in very indirect ways.
And then there’s the issue of choice. Often humans say things like they believe in this or that, but what does that mean? Does it mean this was a conscious choice? I don’t think I could simply “choose,” consciously, to believe that the moon is made of green cheese. Sure, i could say that I believe this, but that’s quite different from believing this. And while I can even lie to myself, and try to convince myself that I believe this, in reality, I don’t, and wouldn’t be able to convince myself, consciously, if I tried. My unconscious, or my belief system, or whatever part of me chooses my beliefs, isn’t really something that my conscious mind gets to control. And so, it seems we don’t really choose our beliefs, in fact, it’s oddly almost as if they choose us!
And so, I believe in gravity, I didn’t choose this, but the evidences compelled me, based on other things I believe in, like science experiments, that gravity exists. But there’s an infinite regress here, because I don’t remember choosing to believe or not in science experiments either, it just happened at some point. Belief is like that, it seems we always chose it in the past, or will in the future, but when do we ever really choose it in the present? And even when we do, it seems like we’re simply recognizing that we “already” chose something, some other part of us, call it our unconscious if you will, chose in the past for us, and we are simply now admitting this. It’s like being in love. You recognize you are in love, or you think in the future you could fall in love with a particular person, but it seems like our gut decides, not our conscious ego-self, so to speak.
And so, in some odd sense, we don’t choose to believe or not, but beliefs choose us, based on who we are, how we relate to the world, our modes of interacting and relating with the world. Or we could say our unconscious chooses. It’s all metaphors. While we can choose to say we believe something we don’t, or try to lie to ourselves, that itself is a belief that this is a good path. It’s an infinite regress all the way down, and hardly something that should make us feel secure. This is why many faith traditions talk about things like “grace,” because wherever you look for belief, it oddly always seems elsewhere than where you’re looking.
But does this mean that one needs to either believe or not in God to “be” a believer? I think this is also an issue of degree. I think all of us believe that God is real, if you mean real in the way that Santa Claus is real, as an idea people have that impact how they act, think, and feel in particular situations. But beyond this, it’s an issue of degree. Some people base their whole lives around this notion, and these seem to believe in the ultimate reality of this God, its intertwining in the realities of the world, the most strongly, and those who see God as simply a fantasy, less so.
But I don’t think anyone completely believes that God “doesn’t exist” at all. Nor that anyone believes that God is the only thing that exists, because even if God is the only thing in the world, the distinct parts of God, like things or people, have some degree of independence and distinctness, and hence, are in a sense God “less intensely” than God properly speaking. Either way, it’s impossible to believe that God is all there is without there being matters of degree.
And in this sense, any attempt to believe in God is a matter of degree, just as is any attempt to say whether or not it is reasonable or not to believe in God. But if we’re trying to get a sense of whether or not to believe in something like personal immortality, or the existence of God, it seems we’ve muddied the waters, but haven’t gotten that far…
A Possible Solution: Quantum Eternity, Ibn Arabi, and Neoplatonic Notions of Eternity
There is, however, a way of recasting this problem that I think does actually get us somewhere, and largely by shifting the terms in which people generally ask these questions. The preceding questioning perhaps loosened the hold of traditional approaches, but here’s an attempt to reframe things. And it may not quite satisfy some. But it makes this skeptical philosopher feel that, at least, there’s a start to the question of how to address these things.
Lately I’ve been reading Michael Sell’s excellent book Mystical Languages of Unsaying (1994). It’s an investigation of mystical language in figures such as Plotinus, Ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart, etc. In the Ibn Arabi section, he discusses Ibn Arabi’s complex way of reframing the notion of immortality, one which, in many ways, expands upon the Neoplatonic frame which is the foundation of much of the Islamic philosophical tradition.
For Ibn Arabi, God is perpetual creation, and in many ways, there are strong similarities here to the notion described by Deleuze as “the virtual.” Paradoxically, God created the world with his “primordial breath,” and yet, also recreates the world perpetually at every location in space and time, none of which are identical. The more we see this, the more we come into sync with God. Ibn Arabi’s favorite metaphor for this is that of a mirror. Each part of creation is like a dirty mirror which can reflect how God, which is all things, manifests in this particular aspect of itself. Only those who know God with their hearts, however, polish themselves properly, and become transparent mirrors that reveal the image of God in themselves. At this moment, the person in question ceases to be themselves, they undergo a state of fana’, annihilation, which is often thought of as an ego-less state, similar to Buddhist nirvana, in which only God is present where the person once was.
In this moment, the person is no longer within time, but rather, taps into the eternity in which God exists. This eternity is beyond time, before, after, and during time, it is a perpetual now that is beyond all time and yet in all time. The eternal now becomes one with the pre- and post-time of eternity.
Of course, this is paradoxical, mystical talk. But in some senses, it has many very real analogues with some of the insights of quantum physics. When a quantum particle is in an entangled, superpositioned state, often simply called a “quantum” state, it is in multiple spacetimes at once. This is difficult to describe in language, like I’m using now, which uses linearity in delimited and positional spacetime to communicate.
Sometimes researchers use the word “smearing” to describe the ways in which quantum particles seem to be existing in multiple spacetimes at once, but within a particular zone of our regular spacetime. This is why we see clouds of electrons in many diagrams of atoms and molecules, for scientists know that as we approach particular areas of spacetime, an electron is increasingly likely to ‘appear’ if we disturb the area in which it is likely to be. In fact, however, the electron isn’t in a particular location of that spacetime unless we disturb it, for it is in all of them in its ‘smeared’ zone semi-equally, more intensely in some areas that others, but as if spread out in a cloud.
This is how quantum phenomenon seem to interact with our non-quantum world. And it is like they are able to go backwards and forwards in time, or even show up at multiple places in spacetime. This is why some researchers believe it is quite possible that there is only one light particle, or photon, in existence, and it is simply showing up at multiple spacetimes in our extended universe, bouncing around, interacting with aspects of itself, in various intensities as it interacts with matter.
The similarities to the God described by many Sufi mystics, or the Buddha as described by those Buddhists of the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, is uncanny. This is why the Dalai Lama is fascinated by quantum physics.
Returning to Ibn Arabi for a moment. Here’s how Sells describes his position: “The one primordial breath by which the world flowed into actuality is seen now as the eternal breath that always has occurred, and always is occurring” (Sells, Mystical Languages, 106-7). Now its important to know here that the primordial breath is God’s creation of the world by actualizing his potentials in matter. God is the most real aspect of the world, matter the least real, it is literally God’s imaginations or dreams, for God is the only thing that exists out of necessity, and is that of which we can be most certain.
This sounds quite otherworldly until we realize that Ibn Arabi’s notion of God manifests only as perpetual change in the world. Those aspects of the world that are closer to God are the most God-like, they refract him more clearly, and they do this by creating in a manner similar to God, giving off creation, and this is done by refracting God’s creative power, by being able to manifest more of the outside world in oneself despite and through their contradictions.
For Ibn Arabi, rational thought strings together particular categories whereby God can be known, which are ideas (God’s names or attributes), but often gets stuck at contradictions. But humans can use their hearts to bring together opposites, to provide a fuller picture of the world, one which takes into account what appears irrational as well. And it’s clear that the world has much that appears irrational in it. God isn’t limited to what makes sense, he can encompass all of this. And so can the one who knows in a way that’s deeper than reason, what Ibn Arabi calls gnosis.
The one who polishes their mirror refracts the creativity of the world the most intensely by being in sync with the creative principle of the world, which is God, which exists outside of time and yet in ever moment. And this happens when the human creates like God, coming into sync with God, so that God acts through them, beyond their limited ego. This means to dream up a world like God, to give rise to it, to create. To imagine, to dream. But if one is in sync with God, one dreams like God dreams, in a way that is constantly changing, constantly taking in more and more of the world, loving it with the heart, exhibiting compassion, and wanting to liberate it all to be more Godlike, which is to say, to create for itself in similar manner.
This is incredibly similar to what I described in relation to Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism’s notions of “compassion,” “bliss,” “englightenmet,” and “nirvana,” several sides of the same. And in both traditions, those described by Ibn Arabi and these Buddhist schools, this state, as it approaches the world of God/Buddha, is outside of time. By intensifying the present moment, it ties into infinity, eternity, and the pure creativity which exists as pure potential in all aspects of spacetime, but yet which is also outside and beyond them. Or at least, this is how it seems when one enters a mystical state, namely, that one taps into a quantum smearing of one’s spacetime, and that of which it is simply a part.
Many researchers have argued that its completely possible that our universe isn’t actually extended in spacetime, but only seems to be, and rather, is simply a superpositioned quantum state unfolding in itself. That essentially, our world is some sort of 4D hologram, and that we wouldn’t know the difference, because it would seem to all of us like space was extended and time moving. Which is to say, the world could be an illusion. But such an illusion would be more real, in a sense, to us, than the “reality” that caused it.
The point for Ibn Arabi is that God is pure creativity, and the closer we are to this, the freer we are, the more complete we are, the more real we are, and the more in sync with the essence of the universe. Those dogmatists who try to argue that they have it right prove themselves wrong by limiting God to one particular appearance. God is all aspects of the world, but most intensely those which are creative like him, in a manner which compassionately wants all that exists to create like him, which is the way in which he can in fact create the most intensely, which is to say, to liberate the world, himself in another form, to create to maximum potential.
This is why creativity, eternity, compassion, freedom, power, and bliss are so many sides of the same for Ibn Arabi, and in similar yet distinct ways, for many Buddhist thinkers. Reification, which is to say, thing-ification or limitation, is a necessary part of the way God appears in one particular location in the world, and yet if taken as an end in itself, it is, as Ibn Arabi says, “idolatry.”
This is why the greatest error, for Ibn Arabi, is to try to “bind” God to one particular manifestation, and he calls this “idolatry,” just as he calls reframes “infidelity,” as Sells nicely shows, as failing to believe in the full power of God to manifest to all, through his love, differently. A pure heart sees this. And this is why dogmatism is idolatry and lack of belief, faith in the power of God to manifest creatively in the imagination of others.
What Could This Mean For Us Today? God, Belief, Immortality?
Does this mean that Ibn Arabi believes in God? He was accused by critics of monism and pantheism alike, but as Corbin and others argue, this is to radically oversimplify. Ibn Arabi’s approach to these issues is radically non-dual, anti-reifying, in the sense I described in relation to various trends in Indic and/or Buddhist thought in previous posts. Ibn Arabi believes that the force towards creation is the most real thing in the world. And he is right.
More real than the existence of my couch, a stone, other people, Santa Claus, or anything we’ve yet to encounter, all of which will eventually pass away, and which once didn’t exist, is the existence of the push to change within the cosmos, that which was before the Big Bang, and which will exist, in some form, long after we are gone. It is that from which we all came, and will all return.
This force in the universe, which created the universe and likely will exist beyond it, which was before space and time came to be in the Big Bang, is present in every aspect of the world today, pushing it forward via various tendencies, forces, movements, etc. This force pushed us to evolve from inorganic matter, and into complex human forms, and we are most in sync with this the more intensely we are like this force, which is to say, create, and liberate more of the world to create in turn. A non-restrictive, loving, compassionate desire of liberation of self and others from binding into particular forms, to continual overcoming of self and world. Precisely what Deleuze knows as the virtual, the Buddhists as Buddha nature, and the Sufi’s as God.
Framed in scientific terms, it is easy to see why it is not irrational to “believe” in this force. But can this force give us comfort? Can we have a personal relation with such a force? And what about personal immortality?
A Personal God?
According to Ibn Arabi, this abstract force towards creation exists in pure form in a way that is ultimately inaccessible. And this makes sense, none of us can directly access the Big Bang. But its manifestations are in every aspect of the world, and most intensely in those aspects of that manifestation which tend towards greater creation. Each aspects of the world is, to Ibn Arabi, a “face” of God, waiting to be seen by the “heart” of the person who becomes like a polished mirror, refracting God back to itself by creating.
But creating what? The face of God that is seen. Most see a couch, a stone, another human, but the Sufi gnostic in the mode of Ibn Arabi also sees a face of God, and in doing so, is transformed into a mirror. God, self, object, these refract each other as manifestations of God’s creation, and this is accomplished by the imagination, the creation, of the human in question, who transforms the everyday object into a manifestation of God’s creativity, and in so doing, recreates and transforms themself. By imagining, the human comes closer into sync with how God created the world by imagining. And so, by seeing God in every aspect of the world, but moreso in the creative aspects, the human recreates themselves.
But how? But fostering creativity in a compassionate sense in all the world, and in themselves. By working to liberate all the world from its self-imposed constraints, and to strive to be compassionately creatively liberatory of self, world, and other in the same way. But trying to show dogmatists, the paranoid, the reified, the creative potential lurking within. Recreating the world in this way, the creative dreamer recreates themselves, and vice-versa, and in doing so, channels God’s creativity by giving it a channel to flow into the world. One is no longer there, but God acts through one. This is why the Sufis refer to this state as annihilation, because our ego dies, and we become a refraction of God.
And we do this by dreaming, but in the world. By seeing the physical world as less real than the potential it has to become radically more liberatorily creative. By not reifying, or dogmatizing. For Ibn Arabi, all faiths, all beliefs, all dreams of God are viable paths to God. What matters isn’t if someone is Muslim or Christian, or even agnostic or atheist, so long as they love in a non-reifying, creative, liberatory, compassionate way towards themselves and the world. They cease being themselves, and become this force refracted in the world. They die as ego, and become the world, become a vessel for pure creation.
Not caught by idols, and not losing faith to believe in the potential of the world to arise in infinite creative difference, the believer is only a believer to the extent that they liberate-create self-world-object. Language does, in fact, break down. But in practice, this continual effort to continually recreate God in oneself, world, object, and other, this is the goal, the continual quest for fana’.
And eternity. For this pure creativity returns eternally in the perpetual now, even as it is outside of time, before and after time, in all of time, etc. The quantum state before and after and during our universe, and in this universe, yearning to attain within matter the freedom it had in potential in quantum states before “falling” into materiality. So much of this cosmogeny syncs nicely with the quantum view of the world.
But if it’s all imagination, why not dream terrible dreams with one’s creative power? Many have, of course, and this has had disastrous consequences to life, joy, creativity, and much more. Death, destruction, pain, horror. But these are all forms of idolatry and infidelity, the belief in a limited God, be this the nation, or money, or one particular “god” or dogma, or whatever else, and then forcing others to see God, which is to say, the creative potential of all that is, that way. Love, another word for which is creative liberatory potential, the virtual, or what Ibn Arabi calls “the heart,” is the guide. Some imaginings further potentialize the power of all others to imagine their own, while some attempt to contain and hold it all for themselves. The difference is pretty clear.
And of course, the freedom to dream differently includes the freedom to dream terrible dreams. But without this, the world would ‘t have the freedom to go beyond itself, and hopefully, to learn the dangers and suffering this causes, to itself, and other. For our worlds and ourselves always mirror each other. Those who harm others are consumed on the inside, whether they show it or not, the world and self are always in interplay.
Freedom, desire, curiosity, compassion, liberation, rather than paranoia, fear, anger, and reification. These words, such as freedom, desire, curiosity, liberation, compassion, these are easy to say, but hard to create and recreate in oneself perpetually. But that is why all these traditions see this as a perpetual practice.
And immortality? If one is more God-like the more in sync with liberatory creativity, the more one participates in this force, not as ego, but as refraction. One intensifies one’s being by becoming more intensely, one becomes full with the potential to be all things, and to bring always more into actuality. Immortality is wrongly conceived as all or nothing, that one has eternal life because of one’s devotion to one particular God, or one ceases to be immortal if one chooses the wrong one.
Degrees of Immortality?
But what if, like everything else of value in the world, it’s all a matter of degree? Those who are most Godlike have the most immortality, but all of us have some degree or another of immortality. What might this mean?
Certainly the Big Bang, in its quantum superposed state, is the most immortal thing we know, for it is both within our time, in all of our times and spaces, and yet, both before and after them. Our spacetimes unfold within the Big Bang, or rather, the “Big Banging,” as it explores itself in and beyond its spacetimes within it. Language can only do so much to explain this.
But to the extent that we come into sync with it, the more we refract it, the more we tap into this immortality. And the more we become one with it. This is why figures like Plotinus and Spinoza, Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sadra, all those in the tradition of Neoplatonism, and the Buddhists who may have even influenced Neoplatonism early on, believe that there is no personal immortality, but participatory immortality. That is, the immortal part of our soul lives on. But some of these thinkers believe that the more Godlike we become, the more of us lasts on.
Following Ibn Arabi’s logic, this would mean that the more we create in a Godlike way, the more we live on. What could this mean?
Those of us who raise children live on in them, and those who love their children live on in how they love others. Those who create works of art live on in those who appreciate that art, that grow as humans because of this. And those who do any of these things live on materially, but also in memory.
But there is more than just that. Those who see God in the world, who experience theophany (the appearance of God), in particular aspects of the world, also tap into eternity. To see God in a stone, in a person, is to touch eternity in that present moment, that eternal now. And I have always felt that in those moments, whether I called what I was tapping into ‘God’ or something less theological sounding, that I was touching eternity.
A landscape that is impossibly beautiful. A loved one that one carries in your soul for eternity. This eternity isn’t simply illusory. Each time one holds an aspect of the world up to God as a manifestation of God, one gives it greater eternity, and in the process, gives oneself eternity, for you are yourself transformed. Not in some fantasy, but in one’s very concrete reality. The more you see “God” in the world, the more you change. The Buddhists would say that one reduces “craving,” while Ibn Arabi would talk about one “binding” God less, and coming more into a state of “fana.'”
But here we see why for so many of these Mahayana Buddhists, “nirvana is samsara,” the world IS release, one just needs to look at it differently. But this change in perspective is everything, it is liberation, and compassion, for oneself and the world. It is the cessation of craving, without the elimination of desire. It is to see everything as a refraction of the path to the Buddha, which is the path to its creative liberation of itself and its world.
Is this religion? Does it require belief to produce salvation? Is this even recognizeable as a traditional sort of God? Or is it just pattern completion of some of the evidences provided by the physical world, and the odd data supplied by experiments in quantum physics?
Does it matter? Believing this certainly seems like it would make one happier. It’s not simple irrationalism, nor is it limited by ‘if I can’t see it it doesn’t exist’ of simplistic forms of atheism. Perhaps it’s agnosticism beyond agnosticism. Hard to say.
But it makes me think of the person I lost recently. And that her love lasts in all eternity. That the more I meditate on that love, the more real it becomes, the more it will transform me, the more eternity I give it. Ancestor worship makes more sense now, though not in the literal sense. Once gives ancestors immortality by producing that immortality in oneself.
Beyond “Objective” Immortality
Does that mean we continue on when we die? Certainly every aspect of the world always already existed in the quantum eternity of the Big Banging, in which it’s all always already there even as it gives rise to itself within itself. This is what Whitehead calls “objective immortality,” no aspect of the world is truly “forgotten,” for it leaves physical traces in the world. Move a stone, and it moves others, producing ripples that last for all time, but which are washed out, generally, by similar movements. No-one will remember the stone moved on tiny bit.
But the more intensely we transform ourselves by our dreams, the more we transform our worlds, and in a sort of virtual reality, our dreams impact very physical things. We see this in Tibetan Buddhism as well as Sufism, in which visualization techniques are employed. And in many of the more advanced aspects of these traditions, it becomes quite clear that there is a creative aspect of this, one doesn’t just receive visions, one makes them up, one meditates on one’s desired visions, and they become real inside one, transform one, and by your actions, changed by these practices, one then changes the way one acts, feels, thinks, and exists in the world.
So by meditating on my Grandma’s love for me, I give her greater intensity of existence, and this alters the way I think and feel about the world, how I act within it. I give her more life. Not conscious life. No, it does seem our aspects split up, cease to be a unity. But the aspects, like the love of my Grandma, live on. The body separates from it, but the love continues, for I give it more time as I meditate on it, and the more intensely, the more intense the now becomes, the more it dilates to approach a dream of eternity. And since dreams are more real, in a sense, than reality, for they have the power to transform reality, beyond any particular instant, location, or matter than is the excuse or support for that dream in any given moment, the dream is always more powerful than reality. But it needs reality to extend it, give it body, support it. And the more a dream extends into reality, the more eternal it becomes.
We touch eternity when we dream, but we extend eternity into time when we bring it into time. By meditating on something like the love of my Grandma, I give it greater eternity by giving it greater foothold into time. Time and eternity, these are two sides of the same, and each quantum phenomena is both within time, and outside of it, smearing the difference.
There are, of course, terrible things that live on. Murders, hatreds, genocides. These live on in intensity as well. Nothing can erase them. Each death is the death of a world, each pain cannot be erased, and the more intense the suffering, the more it cannot be erased in the objective immortality of the cosmos. But each pain then becomes a call, a duty, something we must understand the causes of, commit ourselves to prevent from happening in the future, pledge to make right. To redeem these pains as teaching us something so vital, something we had to learn to prevent greater horrors in the future, so that these pains were not in vain. Nothing can make those sufferings go away. But as we meditate on them, we try to convert them into horrific lessons that the world, the species, the universe needed to learn.
Let us hope we learn, never, never again. And let us hope that we find a way to overcome death, pain, suffering, materially, mentally, emotionally, socially, etc. Such a hope, such a pipe-dream, but dreams have a way of impacting reality when believed with great intensity. Not by abandoning reason, but reconstextualizing it as only one way of dreaming. All artists throughout eternity have dared to dream, and to bring their dreams into the world.
And this is why, for Ibn Arabi, when Moses was before the burning bush, it provides a key example of what he’s talking about. Was Moses insane, what today we’d call psychotic, or schizophrenic? Or simply an artist, an artist of the soul, perhaps? But how many have died because of dogmatic interpretations of religious visions? Should we all simply dream up new religions? Is that what Ibn Arabi’s advocating?
My sense is that we should believe it’s possible to see God in everything, and that if we all do this, all together, the world will transform itself radically, and God will become real, the world will be God, in sync with God, and irredeemably better. But what prevents this is idolatry, dogmatism, reification, binding, whatever we call it.
Does this mean I’ve become religious, or started to “believe” in God? It’s all a matter of degree. Once all the terms of religious discourse are transformed in this way, nothing is the same. But if this is what it means to believe, let’s say that I’ve started to dream. I still believe in neuroscience, and physical evidence, and I think most traditional notions of God are just silly. I still think that after we die, something conscious stops, and we certainly change, transform. But there is also some sort of eternity. It is here in every moment. And we can tap into it, here and now, and that there is something very, very important here.
And so, to see this force in all that is as a personal, caring God, one that loves and remembers all, this sort of theophany, is in a sense more real, as dream, than the reality in front of us…more creative, more powerful, more human, more quantumly divine, compassionately liberatory, and even moreso the more real we make it, the more we extend it into the world, at least, such that it gives rise to more dreaming of this sort. And if the human mind is but an echo of the quantum state of the Big Bang, then perhaps Ibn Arabi is more right than we ever dreamed….
Either way, it seems that, as Sells says, in Ibn Arabi, the dichotomy between eternity and ephemerality is overcome” (108). At least, that is the hope. But as Sells argues, while there is ecstasy in the fusion with eternity, there is also sadness, for it perpetually runs away into a new form in a new moment. While each moment can extend forever, and Ibn Arabi is quite clear that it is intensity that determines the length of a moment of time, not the time of clocks, up to and potentially including eternity/timelessness, it is also clear that time passes. And here we see the link to Buddhism, the manner in which getting beyond “binding” for Ibn Arabi must also lead to a learning not to “bind” the way the world appeared in the past.
This is learning to let go. Ibn Arabi speaks of ecstasy as well as sadness in his erotic poetry, which is Sufism is frequently a way of discussing mystical experience. And it is, as Sells argues, precisely the ambiguity of reference, the fact that what is being discussed could be erotic love for a beloved, or for God, that gives the poetry its power. For in fact, it is the ambiguity that makes it creative, possible of more meanings. Bringing these meanings into the physical world is the only way to anchor them, just as reimagining the physical world is the only way to liberate it. This dialectic cuts both ways.
And so eternity is always present, even as every moment vanishes forever. Nirvana is samsara, and we need to learn to give up everything to gain it completely, and vice-versa. Dreaming can liberate matter, just as matter can anchor dreaming. And while dreaming is closer to eternity, and matter closer to passing away, humans always live between these. The more intensely we bring the dream into reality, the more we eternalize and materialize our dreams, and the more we dream about matter, the more we liberate it, eternalize it.
And this is why everything in the world is potentially holy, sacred, a site for the appearance of eternity, and it is our recreation, our dreaming, that can make it so. But we need to learn to give up our dreams to create new ones, to transform with them, or we become prisoners of them, we lose the link to eternity in the present, that which breaks our tie to craving and binding. This is why the eternity of the present comes at the cost of perpetual dying and rebirth.