Spandrel: Plants want to grow

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…I discovered some volunteers in the compost pile! They appear to be tomatoes, surely sprouted from some Roma or cherry tomatoes that I fed the pile some time ago.

volunteers in the compost pile (sometime at the beginning of May, 2022)

Volunteers interest me because they demonstrate something important: plants want to grow. Given even somewhat right conditions, plants will sprout and get to creating their own environment, reaching up to the sun and down into the earth at the same time.

In a way, the position of plants resembles the way Buddhist traditions understand humanity. Unlike the Abrahamic traditions in which humans represent a particular and special part of God’s creation, in Buddhist thought humans don’t differ ontologically or teleologically from other beings. Human life remains valuable, but, at least in the Mahayana tradition, differs only in degree from other forms of life rather than in kind. Hence the prevalence of vegetarianism in Mahayana schools. Humans, (in)famously, make their own environments. But only after plants have made one for us first.

But though humans don’t differ in kind from other beings, human life nonetheless remains precious because we are ideally suited to awakening to what the Buddha taught: that life is characterized by suffering. Humans are conscious and, therefore, aware of our suffering as such, but we are also relatively limited in our abilities to remove the possibility of suffering from our lives. By contrast, gods and other celestial beings “higher” than humans enjoy long lives devoid of suffering, but because their lives are completely carefree, it never (or rarely) occurs to them to try and figure out the problem of birth, death, and rebirth. In traditional accounts, this means that after death gods and celestial beings, having done nothing to expiate their bad karma or gain merit and insight, tend to be reborn “down,” as animals or humans.

Many cultures use trees as symbols connecting the worlds above and below, and for good reason: terrestrial plants are the reason any terrestrial animals exist, and, therefore, any intelligent life (on this planet). The bumper sticker that reads “Trees are the Answer” isn’t incorrect, just a bit limited in scope. Plants convert solar energy into sugars and turn solid rock into soil, making life possible for others – in a way, we humans (and other heterotrophs) have a parasitic relationship with the autotrophs that built the possibility of our world from bare rock and CO2. [Cue Agent Smith in the scene where Morpheus is chained up in The Matrix.]

The same volunteers, the end of May 2022

But parasitism isn’t exactly right. Humans are responsible, along with other factors, for the extinction of a great many plant species, but we also have something approaching a commensal or mutualist relationship with a significant number of others. But regardless of our relationships with them, humans can learn something from the plants around us: plants make worlds that suit them without thinking about it. We humans, parasites par excellence, can’t not think (I think?). But if we look to plants, who patiently make worlds day in and day out, sometimes suffering, often dying, we might catch a glimpse of a positive way of being, a way of being that makes worlds constantly, because it wants to…

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Spandrel: Teaching God to Behave Itself

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…Christian Gnosticism is interesting to me because it posits that the world was not created by a perfect being with perfect omniscience and omnibenevolence, but rather (in some versions of the story) by Yaldabaoth, the misbegotten creation of Sophia, one of the Emanations of God furthest from the perfect Pleroma where God him(it?)self dwells. Yaldabaoth, also called the Demiurge, is the first mis-creation in this world, and therefore fancies himself a God over all the parts of creation that come after him. [From a Buddhist perspective, this makes him the most deluded being in the universe given that he not only fails to realize that he too is marked by impermanence, but in fact claims to be the only being not subject to birth and death.]

Since, from the Gnostic perspective, the world contains evil because it was created by an imperfect being, the answer to “why does God let bad things happen to good people” is (partially!) resolved: God lets bad things happen to good people because 1. the being we’re calling God isn’t really God, and 2. that being is partially himself evil. Or, at least, deluded or ignorant and so not omnibenevolent since not omniscient.

This also means that in some instances Gnostic thought posited that spirit, since it ultimately still does come from God (the real one, not Yaldabaoth) is good, and the material world created by the Demiurge is therefore entirely bad. Here I part ways with the Gnostics.

Some positions in Gnosticism also posit that the Demiurge (Yaldabaoth) is actively evil or antagonistic. I think this is too simple. It’s a much more interesting situation if the Demiurge isn’t good or evil but maybe blind, ignorant, impaired or deluded somehow. Then, I think, we can do something about it by engaging with the world.

Nietzsche argued that in his attempt to “make room for faith,” Kant assassinated God without having the guts to declare himself the killer. (See also Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – the “pale criminal,” indeed). When Nietzsche’s Zarathustra comes down to the Spotted Cow and wonders that the townsfolk fail to realize that God is dead, the ramifications of Kant’s wordy stiletto-thrust have yet to make themselves fully felt. No one seems to get it, no one seems to care that something momentous has happened. Instead, the last men “blink.”

What if God is not dead – if he was ever alive at all – but rather, blind, groping, maybe crippled or confused? What if Nietzsche mistook the death of an image of God – the late-Medieval perfect and omniscient God of a rationally ordered cosmos with a hierarchical chain of being built in to it – for the end of the possibility of God as a kind of structural point, like the “it” in “it is raining;” an asymptote, or a singularity that allows for the possibility of relations with it, but is not itself a real object?

The job, if God is not dead but ignorant or deluded, would be to teach him how to behave through our own actions and example. If humans have free will despite the cosmos having been mis-made, then we can freely choose to look back at God and say, “pay attention. I’ll show you how it’s done.”

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Spandrel: Strategic Belief

[Note to the reader: a “spandrel,” in architecture, is the roughly triangular space between one side of an arch and the ceiling above it. In medieval churches, these would often be filled in as decorative elements. In biology, a “spandrel” is a phenotypic trait resulting from some other trait, rather than as a direct product of natural selection. The human chin, for example, is proposed as a biological spandrel since it apparently doesn’t do much. In both cases, the term seems to mean something like a “byproduct,” one unintended or incidental, maybe, but that might nonetheless find some use. I’m using the term for some incidental (or “occasional”) thoughts that don’t quite have the legs to become essays yet. Because I think of these posts as fragments, I’ve included elipses on either end, connectors to a context not yet defined.

Housekeeping note: for now I will probably file these posts under “essays,” but I may create a dedicated page in the menu if I find them proliferating.]


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…once I had a professor tell me that he was a “strategic Freudian.” We were reading Words With Power: Being a Second Study of ‘The Bible and Literature’ by Northrop Frye, and he was responding to the question of whether Frye’s analysis of myth as the disavowed basis for social order was similar to Freud’s ideas on repression.

I don’t remember what he actually ended up saying after declaring his strategic Freudianism, but the idea has stuck with me for some time not only for its rhetorical possibilities, but also for its potential therapeutics. Rather than insisting on belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, strategic belief would seem to allow for greater flexibility and more fruitful generating of thought experiments or hypotheticals.

Of course, one could argue that “strategic” belief is not belief at all, but a kind of cynical relativism. I would respond, at least initially, that here the emphasis should be on the strategic element. Strategic belief tries to do something with the idea in question. Of course, that might still lead to unintended negative consequences, but it still strikes me as potentially quite useful.

On top of that, cracking the rigidity of one’s beliefs by intentionally “inhabiting” an idea one might not entirely agree with seems potentially useful to me as a way to put some hairline cracks into the calcified edifice belief becomes when it has no challenge or nuance. I’ve talked about the idea of “translucence” of one’s mind to oneself (see here and here). Strategic belief seems like it might prove helpful in opening those shades a bit more, letting more light in…

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