Saturday, September 10, 2011


I often say to my students as well as to those who come to listen to my public addresses, ‘If you can go away from here today with just one new thought – one hopefully life-changing thought – then my mission has been accomplished.’ In that regard, I have always loved these words of Friedrich Nietzsche:

‘Even a thought, even a possibility, can shatter us and transform us.’

So it is, when reading a book or an article – or even a blog  – on some important topic. If you can pick up some new idea or thought-form which opens up some new understanding, then it has been worthwhile.

Some years ago I was president at the same time of both the Humanist Society of New South Wales and the Council of Australian Humanists. I still consider myself a humanist because it is obvious to me that human problems can only be solved by human beings acting rationally. In that regard, I fully and unashamedly embrace the sentiment in these words from Humanist Manifesto II: 'While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.' Got that? We must save ourselves. Nevertheless, I tire easily of old-fashioned dry, unadulterated rationalism that is not accompanied by some emotion in the form of compassion and humaneness. I should, however, add that I tire even more easily, and much more quickly, of superstition and notions of ‘supernaturalism’.

Now, well before I joined the Humanists, I had on my shelves a most illuminating book entitled A Humanist View, which was edited by one Ian Edwards (a former chairman of the NSW Humanist Society, which was instrumental in causing the book to be brought about), and which contained chapters written by some 16 then-prominent Australian humanists.

One of the chapters was entitled ‘Life Without Magic’, which was written by the eminent zoologist Dr Ronald Strahan AM (1922-2010) (pictured right) who was at that time and for many years the director of Taronga Zoo, Sydney – truly one of the world’s greatest zoos. Now, getting back to my original point, this article contained what was, and still is, for me one really life-changing, transformative thought – namely, that there is no such thing as the ‘life force’.

New Agers love to waffle on and pontificate about the existence of the supposed ‘life force’, as if it were some mysterious vital principle which animates all life (cf the totally discredited notions of vitalism). However, the reality of so-called 'life force' or 'universal life energy' is completely unknown to natural science. Now, Dr Strahan convincingly demonstrated that there is no such thing. That's right. There is no vital force or power distinct and separate from the various mechanical and physico-chemical forces of nature. Strahan wrote:

‘The word “life” has been avoided intentionally. Instead, we have considered what certain material structures known as “living things” do. What they do is what we call “living”. “Life” is the abstract noun from the verb “to live”.

‘And it is an abstraction. To say that a living thing is matter plus life is as nonsensical as to say that a motor car is matter plus locomotion, or a “motive principle”, or an “élan locomotif”.’

This is a most important point. What we call ‘life’ is simply the sum total of living things, all living out their ‘livingness’ in time and space. The so-called ‘life force’ is nothing more than the self-livingness of living things. The self-livingness to which I refer is characterised by living things self-moving, self-directing, self-adjusting and self-regulating. Is that not amazing enough? Why do some feel a need to interpolate some additional supposed vital energy or force?

It is the same with the 'universe' [see below]. I have not difficulty in accepting that what we call the universe was either unmade or self-made. I rejoice in the fact that there is no concept in Buddhism of ‘creation’, let alone any doctrine of ‘special creation’ (as in Christianity), nor is there any sense of there being a ‘Creator’, whether personal or otherwise. Buddhism teaches that everything is ‘fundamentally uncreated’ and that life exists through and as things as opposed to in things. All that makes perfect good sense to me.

Life is simply an abstract noun – a word – but in a very important sense there is no such thing ... just as there is no such thing as the universe. Yes, that’s right. The word ‘universe’ is simply an abstract noun that refers to the sum total of all there is (that is, A + B + C + D + E ... and so on). The various things A, B, C, D, E and so on do indeed exist as separate things in their own right, but not the supposed thing called the ‘universe’. I thank Professor John Anderson for that insight.

I remember the day when I first read what Strahan had written. It was a 'wow' moment for me. I felt a tingling sensation in my head, and down my spine, knowing that I had read something new (at least for me) which had the effect of opening up new ‘channels’ (for want of a better word) of understanding. Yes, I said to myself, that has got to be right. There is no life force as such, just living things living out their livingness as occurrences in time and space. Each living thing has internal differentiation and interacts with other things ... all on the same level or order of reality and observability. In addition, living things are constituent members of wider systems and exchanges of things, with the forms of things constantly being transmuted.

Mindfulness is a lifelong inquiry into what it means to be fully present and alert in the present moment. Each moment of our existence is but a brief occurrence in what is otherwise a state of flux. Life is nothing but the very livingness of all things living out their livingness from one moment to the next.

The unity of all things derives, not from all things being one, nor from the presence of some supposed ‘life force’, but simply from the fact that a single logic applies to all things.


1 comment:

  1. Good one, Ian.

    I love, "The self-livingness to which I refer is characterised by living things self-moving, self-directing, self-adjusting and self-regulating. Is that not amazing enough?"

    Yes! I am constantly amazed!