Spiritual Structure from Analogy

This is another in a series of posts about spiritual forces.  In this one I’m going to attempt to find out more about spiritual forces and dynamics using physical analogy.  But WARNING: this is a very direct physical use of analogy, from physical forces and associated concepts to spiritual ideas.   So I’m not certain this is the best way to approach the subject (of spiritual forces). But just indulge me ok, consider this a playful composition of ideas.

It is not a final draft. I’ve written it as a train of thought, showing you how my thinking works in something like real time.  Think of it as a delayed live action feed into my mind, with most of my daily cares deleted.   The purpose is not to show you how my brain works, but rather to motivate you to think of further ideas along these lines, or contrary creative ideas.

The Spiritual — A Reminder

For these letters, “spiritual” refers to abstract ideas like love, beauty, truth, justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, and the list goes on.  These are things that have an objective reality, but not a physical reality in their essence.  We can know of these spiritual attributes through our physical senses because all created things manifest something of these abstract eternal spiritual qualities.  A humble rock or speck of dust, for example, manifests the entirely abstract and atemporal quality of “beauty” in the form of it’s crystalline structure. It also manifest a tiny degree of “love” in the cohesion of it’s atomic bonding.

To be perfectly clear, “love” is not an inter-atomic force between charged particles.  The relationship between love and cohesive forces is really the other way around. Gravitational masses and opposite electric charges manifest a particular instantiation of love, which is a purely physical form, that being the attraction between oppositely charged particles, or between gravitational masses.  And of these two physical manifestations of the most basic an elementary aspect of love, it is gravity which is rather beautiful because it is universal and always attractive.   Of course, this can have grave and horrific consequences, such as getting too close to a black hole.

There are perhaps spiritual analogies to the gravitationally completely collapsed objects known as black holes. Can you think of one?

Force and Field — Energy and Potential (the spiritual)

Love can be compared to the universal force of gravity.  What is binded by gravity is mass.  What is bound by love are sentient souls. T he carrier of the force of gravity is the graviton. The stuff which feels the force of gravity is mass (which means gravitational charge).

In the classical picture the graviton acts via geometry, curving spacetime and thus veering two masses towards each other.   Or in the quantum mechanical picture the graviton mediates the force of gravity by an exchange of a quantity called “spin”, which we can describe roughly as an irreducible element of rotational symmetry.   Spin is conserved.   But gravity acts by locally violating conservation of spin.   So the quantum gravity interaction is sort of like: “one mass gives up rotating one way, and the other mass takes up that rotation” and thus globally the symmetry is preserved. This is more of a poetic description of quantum gravity than an exact account, but it suffices for our purposes.

The search for structure in spiritual forces leads me to wonder about what the spiritual analogues are for spin or spacetime curvature, and is there something akin to a conserved quantity?   Or is this taking the metaphor too literally?

Recall Hopper Dunbar’s advice the physical world is a tangible expression and reflection of spiritual truths.   What is seen and understood in the relations between physical entities is mirrored in similar patterns and relations among spiritual realities, and vice versa.   This is presumably not a perfect correspondence, nor is it even entirely logical, but it is my only current guiding principle, so I will take it as far as I can.

At first I thought my understanding is also far too dim to figure out any spiritual correspondence with the physical vectors of forces & fields and the scalars of energy & potential.   But then after a bit of contemplation on a wet humid summer day in Raglan, I thought there might be something worth writing about this. So I had a go.

If there is a correspondence it would be something like having two or more ways of viewing the spiritual force of love.   Two equivalent yet entirely different approaches to describing the force of love. But there is a correspondence with the force & field pairing.

In the spiritual realm the force of love is an intermediary between two souls.   The souls are the spiritually charged particles.

     Spiritual    :    Physical
             love ↔  graviton
             soul ↔ mass
spiritual impulse ↔ force

You could suppose a “spiritual impulse” is a type of wilful volition.   It moves a soul in a certain direction, an inner spiritual direction, not a physical direction. So volition is the spiritual equivalent of a vector force. So I’d prefer to use a correspondence of terms,

Spiritual    :   Physical
       love  ↔ graviton
        soul ↔  mass
    volition ↔  force

A field in physics is the pervasive presence of the force carrying particle (graviton).   So the spiritual correspondence to a field is the pervasiveness of love.   So we might suppose love is everywhere.

What about energy and potential?  Here I thought of the concept of the “power of love” which certainly gets mentioned a lot in literature.  Power is a measure of the use of energy over a given time.  The more energy used over a shorter time the greater the power.   The power of love is thus a measure of the strength of one’s love for something or someone, and whatever influence the force of love has (attracting souls) then greater power of love is a quicker attraction of hearts and souls over a shorter time.

Here’s a problem.  You see, I could not quite abstract away the concept of time, which is a very physical notion.  It seems to infect our sense of spirituality because we (as physical beings) cannot easily project ideas outside the world of time.  Time is a funky thing.  But you can have concepts of time without necessarily thinking of pure physics. Anything that changes implies some kind of time.  Time is a way of measuring rate of change.  Time is what you need to observe any change.  So if the state of a soul can change, then this implies a notion of spiritual time.  But I do not currently have the intellectual resources to talk deeply about a separate sense of spiritual time to physical time, so for now I’ll just merge the two.

Taking power of love as the measure of the rate of attraction (in spiritual space, not physical space) of two souls, we obtain a clearer grasp of the energy of love.  The energy of love is the capacity for love that a soul possesses, which may or may not be employed as an attractive force.  But when there is a greater energy of love from one soul compared to another, then a third soul will naturally feel more strongly connected or attracted (spiritually) to the stronger source of love’s energy.

What is the “energy of love” then? I’d like to abstract away the physics terminology as much as possible.  And what is the potential corresponding to this energy?

Recall, the potential (physics) is the pervasiveness of the energy all over space.  So in the spiritual realm this must correspond to the latent capacity for expressing the energies of love which exist all around our heart and mind.  It pervades every possible thought we have, every idea, every sensation and qualia that our consciousness can convey to our soul. It’s a beautiful correspondence is it not? E very thought is permeated by a capacity for love.  Negative thoughts merely have an absence of full capacity of spirit.

So what is the energy, if love is the force? I’m not sure if I can make any distinction.  If love is a spiritual vector-like force, giving a wilful inner-direction of spiritual motive for a soul, then love’s energy gradient must yield the equivalent spiritual dynamics.  And it is an equivalent way of thinking about love.  The force way of thinking is about motive direction.  The energy way of thinking must yield the same spiritual dynamics but via a gradient of energy.  The direction of maximum increase in energy gives the same motive as the vector of the force of love.

I know I am mixing the physical and spiritual terminology here, but I must for now, in order to try to find the hidden structure.

At this point I can only think of asking the reader for suggestions. What is the spiritual idea corresponding to an energy of love?  We cannot just be lazy and call it energy.  Energy is a raw physics concept.  I am after a proper spiritual concept which plays the role of energy.

My bet current opinion is that the spiritual reality most closely corresponding to an energy, for love, is the human (or other sentient being) sense of excitement in their thoughts and feelings for others.  This is a spiritual energy.  The more inner-excitement one soul generates compared to others, the stronger the force of love which they emanate and with which they can draw others to them, in a spiritual sense.  Closer in heart, so to speak, closer in mind.

This excitement I will term “soulful radiance”.  Although radiance is also a physic concept, it is often used in literature to mean the inner state of joy of someone.  So that’s my meaning.  I’ll adopt radiance as meaning one’s inner state of joy and rapture.  Maybe “rapture” is the word I should use, but I like the imagery of radiance, so I’ll stick with it.

Notice how impossible it is to discuss any of this completely void of physical terms.  It just cannot be done.  Maybe we could draw some abstract symbols and coin new names for them. That’d be fun, but would be a diversion for now. I just have to trust readers will be able to figure out what words here represent inner unseen spiritual realities and which are the physical correspondences.

So now the correspondences read,

Physical   :    Spiritual
  graviton ↔ love
      mass ↔ soul
     force ↔ volition
     field ↔ the volition latent in all possible thoughts
    energy ↔  soulful radiance (rapture/joy/bliss)
 potential ↔ the latent radiance (rapture/joy/bliss) pervading all possible thoughts

Remember, a force can be any type of motive impulse, not just gravity.

So for the particular spiritual force of love we get volitional states of a soul of a particular kind.  These are the kinds of wilful volitions that attract and bind hearts.  For example, the thought that you will send someone flowers today because you love them, or write a meaningful poem for them, or simply smile and comfort them.  These are all thoughts you might entertain as a consequence of the force of love acting upon your inner heart (the aspect of your soul which feels the qualia of emotions).

You maybe then actually carry out the physical actions correlated with putting such will and volition into practise, but that’s all physics.   The primary motive came from the spirit.  Do you see that? It’s important I think.  Too many of our actions are not informed by spiritual impulses, and they tend to be the bad ones!

Now I ask you, for convenience is there a single word which translates as “volition latent in all possible actions”? And is there also one for “the latent rapture pervading all possible thoughts”.  It’d be nice to have such words for elegant simplicity. Maybe you’d care to suggest a few?

What is “latent will or volition”?   It’s something like the (abstract) space of all possible thoughts.  We could call this the thoughtscape, the realm of ideas. Or maybe it is a bit more subtle?   Anyway, the truly beautiful idea I am led to is that within every possible thought there is a potential, a spiritual energy, a radiance or rapture. It’s degree must depend upon other factors, but to think of an inner potential radiance in all thoughts, even humble thoughts, is a wonderful thing.

To think we can also inwardly, in our mind, experience the fullness of such inner radiance by thinking good thoughts is another wonderful thing.  And to think that the spiritual equivalent of “power”, which is the rate of progress or change in such inner radiance, is free for us to tap into if we only relax our busy mind and think such thoughts, is, well, it is an empowering thing to think.  And that such thoughts can inform our day to day physical actions, impressing their spiritual potency and potential upon our physical potential, that again is a wonderfully empowering realisation.

Why then spend your time thinking non-radiant thoughts, thoughts of low spiritual radiance?  They are not going to produce sparkling wilful volition, and will not likely be spiritually attractive, since their love (a spiritual force) will be weak.

These are just the initial ideas I get when applying the physical–spiritual metaphors and analogies.

It’s a bit crazy to think of taking these metaphors and correspondences further, but I’ll do it!   Even if it is crazy, I think it is beautiful.

An Answer to the Analogy Question

A spiritual analogy for the gravitationally completely collapsed objects known as black holes?

Well, it might be a love so strong that it engulfs your mind, a love so potent you will sacrifice yourself for your beloved.   A love so strong it might tear you up and leave you completely dead to your self.  Wouldn’t the greatest be that you end up living as one with your beloved?  Yes, but how many people can claim to have reached that state of perfection?

Maybe, sadly, many who try to reach that state will expire from the effort, give up their physical existence and hasten their physical existence along to become more swiftly at one with the dust. I used to pity such people.  But now I pity ourselves for failing to provide a world that can sustain such love.  This is what life is largely all about.   Ever been stumped by the question, “what’s the meaning of life?”   (Not the definition of life, that’s easy, but the meaning, the purpose, do we actually have any purpose?)

Mainly from reading the thoughts of wiser people, I’ve grown to realise there are many good answers.  One is that we exist to love.  And a large portion of our lives are wasted if we are not constantly actively pursuing living in a way that makes the world around us a happier and more peaceful place for all people to live within.  If you or I could just help one person to give the world their full potential and not expire from the effort of wanting to love too much, but to instead become brilliant from the effort, to become magnificent and radiant from the pain and fire and bliss and ecstasy of their love, well then, wouldn’t that make life worth living?


Flames of love. The pain can hurt and seem unfair or burn away unhealthy desire and attachment.

There is a lot more to write on this topic, but that’s enough for today from me.

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Spiritual Forces In and Out of Time

What were spiritual forces again?  They are abstractions of human emotions, they are the positive impulses that remain even when all biology and physics is ignored.  Remember, in structuralism one does not imagine the rest of the non-essential stuff of a system is non-existent, rather, we just conveniently ignore it to focus on the essential components and their relationships.  This is a process of thinking called abstraction and generalization.  The concepts involved with spiritual forces are things like love, kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, justice, honesty, and so forth.  Everyone is familiar with what I mean then, but try to define how humans arrive at an understanding of these spiritual abstractions and you might get stuck.

Often I get stuck, and when I do I turn to inspirational writers and thinkers for help.  Some turn out to be a bit intellectually bankrupt, having some hobby horse to whip, but others are genuine searches for truth and meaning within beauty.  One author I’ve recently been reading was Hoper Dunbar, whom I quoted in the previous post.  He gave the structural analogy between Love and Gravity.  One a spiritual force, the other a physical force, connected in the realm of abstraction by the fact both are universally attractive.   And there was a deep insight that negative emotions and negative “spiritual forces” are merely the absence of a positive spiritual forces.  That’s a very helpful and liberating insight.  At least to me it was, because it suggests one can overcome laziness, anxiety, depression, worry, hatred, bitterness, and so forth, by focusing on things that are good and which lead to a mental strengthening of the positive spiritual forces like love.

It’s also not a bad motive for indulging in a healthy variety of hedonism.  You can think and worry about the great environmental problems of your generation, such as deforestation and global warming, but once the negativity rises to boiling point you can help yourself by switching to something positive, like writing or campaigning against environmentally harmful practises in your community or country, and by doing little things everyday to heal the world, such as recycling or using less electricity or creating sustainable energy systems around your home, or helping out at local charities and so forth, or even simply by donating some of your earnings to benevolent trusts, or maybe Wikipedia.  Free education is a massive foundation for healing and positive progress.   It makes one feel really good to do such things.  Do not try to save the world single-handedly either.  Avoid doing activities that weigh you down with emotional frustration and excessive burdens of care.  Practise healthy hedonism.

Search for ways to be at peace with the world around you.  Be creative, not destructive, and this means primarily in the spiritual realm, not only the physical.   As a physical being you cannot survive unless you raise entropy (disorder) around you, so don’t worry too much about that, the Sun provides plenty energy to keep a balance if used wisely.  But as a spiritual being you can do plenty to raise the intellectual and ethical climate around you, and in this climate, our spiritual weather, there is so much freezing cold around that a lot of warming, infinite warming, is what is needed.

Created from the Same Dust

There is a beautiful; passage in The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh which Dunbar uses to illustrate the analogies between physical reality and spiritual reality. It is another good example to study for the project of better understanding spiritual forces.

“O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all
from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the
other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created.
Since We have created you all from one same substance it is
incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same
feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that
from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of
oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.
Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this
counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of
wondrous glory.”

I could drop that last sentence and still find this passage strewn with layers of inner meaning. But for the sake of brevity I can only concentrate on a few interpretations. The important one I want to draw out is the sense of humility we should feel. We are indeed all created from similar atoms. Atoms of carbon are all identical. Same with nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and the rest, each type of atom is identical with it’s same kind. And yet they way they compose our bodies differs across all individuals, none of us are alike. And this difference gives rise to the divergence in the appearance and limitations and comparative abilities of human beings. And eventually, these differences exert an effect on our spiritual character — which is to say, the state of our mind and soul, how we behave inwardly, emotionally and ethically.

You do not have to know or define what a “soul” is to understand what I’m getting at. If you are a strict materialist philosopher and think mind and consciousness arise from neurophysiology, then fine, just use those chunked concepts and stay with this discussion at this higher level of abstraction. Personally, I think the abstractions can have real meaning and can be supposed as deriving an existence of their own independently of the physical world. Like the number π has an existence independent of any practising mathematical beings. But that’s just my opinion. At the present it does not matter too much what sort of metaphysics you believe in, since right now I am in a physical form. So I can abstract out the pure intellectual and spiritual concepts and talk about them and not worry excessively about how they arise from neurological dynamics or quantum effects in the brain or whatever.

The spiritual force here is the idea of humility. Although we are all different and have different skills and abilities, we can still feel humble before someone. There is always someone superior in some way. No one in history has ever been the champion of all things. But Bahá’u’lláh is saying something more profound. That we can always look to our origins and our ultimate fate (physically at least, which is to return to dust). It takes about nine months for a non-embalmed body to decay completely to a pile of unrecognisable dust, and fifteen years for a coffin of untreated wood to similarly completely lose it’s form. An embalmed body takes considerably longer, and I’m not sure if anyone knows exactly how long it takes for the process of returning to dust to complete. The Egyptian mummies allow statisticians to place a high upper limit on the process, maybe tens of thousands of years? I’m rather fond now of choosing not to be embalmed. I like the idea of getting back to dust as quickly as possible. It seems more humble and somehow more dignified. Each to their own.

But that’s all about the physical. The real message in the above passage is the spiritual state of the soul. To be humble is partly to remember our origins, but is much more than this. It requires recognition of the similarity of our spiritual natures, the non-physical aspects of our existence, the characteristics that we all have which can only be shown at a high level of abstraction, such as in our daily interactions with other people, and in the way we think and care about ourselves, about each other and about our planet. And if the Sun and stars were also in crisis we’d want to care about them as well. (Check out the Scifi movie Sunshine (2007) if you haven’t seen it, and extract away from it the slightly silly horror story aspects, and you’ll be left with a pretty cool sort of movie experience about our relationship with the amazing star which is our Sun. The sacrifice of the Japanese captain of the voyage is pretty emotional.) I digress.

Bahá’u’lláh says that because we were created from the same elements as each other, we should live more in harmony and unity. Why? The physical is being used here as symbolism for humility and unity, and yet within this analogy there is variety and difference. So the spiritual force of humility is as colourful and as wonderful as the variety of composition of elements that make up every person. You can be humble in so many ways. It’s wonderful, it really is.

Now what is this about walking with the same feet?

“… to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, …”

It is impossible to interpret this literally, and that’s a great thing about Bahá’u’lláh’s poetry. It is so colourful and metaphorical that it leaves no question about how to interpret it. There is no ambiguity. One has to interpret this symbolically and metaphorically. And what are the structural features being referred to here in the physical symbolism? You can think about that for yourself.

My take on it is that walking with the same feet refers to

Understanding Spiritual Forces Better

Spiritual forces are very interesting. To use them effectively one needs to understand them. To use gravity usefully is mostly a matter of intuition, but when you are a NASA engineer in charge of computing trajectories you also need to understand the physical force in fine detail, mathematically. The type of understanding required for using spiritual forces is a little different though. But there is some structure in them I think.  Spiritual forces require a self-understanding, because using them is a matter of using your spiritual reserves, your mind and intellect and (for want of a better word) your “heart”.

You can use your mind in many ways, for good purposes or for bad. The “heart” of your soul is where you summon the ability to use your mind for good. It is also where you know to recognise good from bad, which is sometimes a subjective opinion, but one which has enough universal facets that we all can basically agree upon what is generally “good” and generally “bad”. Honesty is generally good, and lying or concealing the truth is generally bad, unless you withhold the truth perhaps to save a life. People often relate the scenario of a physician who fears a patient is terminally ill, maybe with a 96% mortality estimate, but if they do not tell the patient they are likely to die, but give them some hope by concealing to true probability, then perhaps the patient may recover through sheer force of will and psychosomatic conditioning. It can happen. It’s not likely, mostly competent physicians are accurate about their estimates of presumed fatal conditions, but it can happen.

Now, I write “the heart of your soul is where you know good form bad …” but I do not mean it is a physical place situated in any spacetime point in your brain. This inner spiritual heart is an abstraction, it exists in no “place” other than in a realm of ideas.  But the ideas it is associated with (love, compassion, tenderness, mercy, hope) are all connected logically and yet mysteriously. And moreover, they have meaning in our lives, because humans, and other sentient creatures, behave according (in part) to the dictates of our spiritual natures, our ability to comprehend abstractions and hence to understand how the effects of love and sincerity and honesty and humility will exert influence on other people.  And I think we behave at our best when we listen more to our heart than to the promptings of our brain’s amygdala (and other primitive pleasure centres, which tend to steer us towards selfishness and cruelty).  Our primitive brain structures are not always bad drivers, they are merely spiritually neutral. I think we can all easily learn to redirect our primitive instincts towards higher and more noble goals. e do not have to allow ourselves to be slaves to our primitive instinctual appetites.

And, this is a key thing, we can uncover some of this mystery, and use our soul-heart better and more efficiently, by exploring the structure of these ideas, and for this, I’ve realised, after reading Dunbar and similar author’s, can be achieved in part by reasoning with analogy from physical metaphors.

Love and Instinct and Higher Emotions

How many people associate romantic love with sex? I sure do! I cannot separate the two. But there are other types of love. Love for nature (which you cannot have sex with), love for ideas, love for art, love for family and friends, love for yourself (which you can have a sort of sex with if you like), love for your work, and so on.

I wish to focus here on romantic love.

The sexual impulses are driven largely my our primitive neurologically wired instincts. But, you see, there is something far more beautiful in romantic love when you get your amygdala and cerebellum working in concert with your higher intellect.  Sex is terrific, wonderful, fulfilling, but only maximally so when it involves the heart.  If you engage in purely physical sensual sex it can be pleasurable I guess, but is it not also a bit empty?  (I cannot comment from experience here, but I guess this is what it’s like to have sex with someone purely for physical gratification.)

To my mind it seems a bit cold and clinical to say this, but I’ll write it anyway.  The thing is, there is a powerful spiritual force of attraction in true romantic love. It binds the inner hearts together more strongly than any physical attraction.  But when combined with raw physical attraction, a spiritual love can be utter hedonistic dynamite. I mean real intellectual sparks and explosions and vanishing of self and ego and immersion in one another on all levels, all physical levels and all emotional levels and all intellectual levels and all spiritual levels.  This is an ideal, but I think two people in love can achieve it’s realisation.

And this ideal, and the hope for it in my own life, is why I’m writing these words.  But for now, I want to get back to the more abstract concept of spiritual force and try to understand it at a more intellectual level, because, for me, greater intellectual understanding is sexy.


Force and Field — Energy and Potential (the physical)

I’ll start from what I can understand, which are physical forces. the two I will sue for examples are electromagnetism and gravity.  The two spiritual forces I will try to discover structure for are love and humility.  You can probably complete a similar exercise yourself using any other sort of spiritual force.

Force and Field

For every physical force in nature there is a corresponding quantum field, which results from the statistical dispersion of force-carrying particles throughout spacetime. The simplest examples are the electrical force and the gravitational force.  The force-carrier for electromagnetism is the humble photon (a particle of light). The force carrier for gravity is the even humbler graviton (because it is extremely weak in interaction compared with the photon).  So the quantum fields are due to the statistics of photons and gravitons for these two forces.

The thing to realise is that even when there is no particle about in space to feel a force, there is still a quantum field.  There are still photons popping up and vanishing all over the place and time.  So fields exist everywhere, whereas forces only exist when there is a particle which can be influenced by the field. In physics, such particles are called elementary charges.  Electrons and protons are examples of electrically charged particles which respond to the influence of the electromagnetic field of the photons.  Any particle with mass is a gravitational charge (mass is just another name for “gravitational charge”).  Pretty much everything has positive mass, and with gravitons as the force carrier all positive mass exerts an attractive force, which is why gravity is universal in attraction, and in the spiritual realm corresponds most closely with the force of love.

Even massless photons feel the influence of gravity because they carry pure energy, which Einstein worked out is a special form of mass.  Basically, energy is mass without inertia, that is to say, energy responds to gravitational fields but the resulting acceleration is not hindered by inertia, so photons zip along at the maximal possible speed, which is by (circular?) definition the speed of light, what else!  There are thus two kinds of mass: (a\i) gravitational mass, which includes energy, which responds to the force of gravity, and (ii) inertial mass, which causes matter to feel a time delay and appear sluggish in response to an acceleration (by any force, gravity or another).  Because photons have zero inertial mass they respond instantly to forces, and thus experience no passage of time, they live and die at once.  You cannot make a clock out of a photon, at least not easily, not without some external inertial reference frame.

There are other forces in nature and other types of charge.  The “chromodynamic (QCD) force” and “QCD-charges” like quarks and gluons for example.  But I will not describe them here. But later on (in another essay) they will serve a purpose in further understanding spiritual forces.

They (charged particles) respond in one and only one simple way, by accelerating in the direction in which the field is strongest.  A major job of a physicist is therefore to calculate the strength and direction of electromagnetic fields, because then they can predict to the future motion of charged particles.

Fields are cool.  They exist all over space and time because there is a finite probability for a photon (or graviton) to instantaneously appear at any given place or time. So a field pervades all of space and all of time for each fundamental force of nature.  What is the spiritual analogy for the forces of love and humility?

Forces and fields are just one way of looking at physical interactions.  There is another way, equivalent and complementary, which uses the concepts of energy and potential.

Energy and Potential

Isaac Newton discovered the concept of force. Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and others used it to describe electricity and magnetism.  But while physicists were discovering how to analyse the way machines do useful work, and how heat always seemed to mess things up, limiting the efficiency of all possible engines, physicists gradually realised there was an amazing abstract concept associated with temperature, which turned out to be the kinetic energy of motion.  Furthermore, this new concept of “energy” seemed to crop up everywhere in physics. Eventually Joseph Louis Lagrange and William Rowan Hamilton worked out a way to convert from Newton’s equations for forces to equivalent equations that used only the concept of energy.

And precisely analogous to the way every force has an associate field which pervades all of spacetime, the concept of energy has an associated quantity called a potential which pervades space and time.  And just as only substantial particles (charges) can experience a force, so only substantial matter can be endowed with energy.  And just as a field pervades all of space even when there are no charged particles around, so too does a potential exist everywhere in space and time even when there is no substantial energy.

This was remarkable, amazing, fantastical even.  Forces are vector quantities you see, they have magnitude and direction.  Their direction tells you how a charged particle will respond (by accelerating in the direction of the force and in proportion to the magnitude).  But energy is a scalar quantity, meaning it is just a number, it has no direction. So how could physics via forces be equivalent to physics via energy?

The equations derived by Lagrange and Hamilton show that a force is equivalent to a gradient in energy, i.e., a change in energy from one place to another.  And a field is equivalent to a gradient in potential.  So there are the following two-way correspondences.

Gradient in EnergyForce

Gradient in Potential ↔ Field

Force carrying particles ↔ Fields

Energy carrying particles ↔ Potentials

And those four correspondences summarize a huge amount of the structure of modern physics, without (sorry) the beautiful mathematical details.

The important thing for physics was that there were now two different but entirely equivalent ways of doing calculations.  Scientists could choose which method was easiest in a given context, the Force+Field methods of Newton, or the Energy+Potential methods of Hamilton and Lagrange.  And they could even switch between these two points of view without too much trouble.  This duality in the possible explanations of nature has had tremendous technological impact.  And our understanding of quantum mechanics (and hence semiconductor electronics, all modern computers, lasers, telecommunications, the internet, nuclear power, discovery of DNA, and most advanced medical imaging methods, and there is a lot more to come, including quantum computing) would have all been impossible using only Newtonian physics.

Force and Field — Energy and Potential (the spiritual)

Hey, don’t expect too much in one day!  This is the topic for my next post.

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What’s a Spiritual Force Then?

Reading “The Artist and the Mathematician” by Amir Aczel, is one of those frustrating experiences, like trying to get a decent suntan on a patchy cloudy day in Wellington. It’s the only day you’ll have free for months, and the clouds keep blocking the way, but you know the UV rays are tanning you anyway, it’s just too cold when the clouds are blocking the heat for it to be pleasant.

(BTW: it’s about the Bourbaki phenomenon in mathematics and how it influenced structuralist philosophy. But the really interesting stuff is the mathematics, and Alexandre Gröthendieck, and sadly that is not much of what the book is about. I’d like to find a good read about Gröthendieck’ s mathematics, not the guy himself, although his life is fascinating )

Actually, truth be told, I’ve read a couple of books on the topic of structuralism, and every one of them was as annoyingly vague about defining exactly what structuralism is! They beat around the topic, mentioning it’s importance in displacing existentialism as the new philosophy for the 20th century, and how structuralism eventually gave way to post-modernism, but they never actually define what it is exactly. And they talk about the influences on structuralism, which as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the linguist Roman Jakobson and the mathematicians Bourbaki. And you just have to either give up and look up Wikipedia, or imagine they’ve defined structuralism implicitly through bulk force of examples. I guess that’s ok, but it is still frustrating, especially for someone who likes to sprint to the mint of a goal of understanding rather than jog and slog.

So in this post I’m going to tell you what structuralism is in essence in sprint fashion, and then link it to something less boring than foundational mathematics and philosophy. And to do this I am not going to consult Wikipedia. You can do that yourself. My version is a subjective impression. (So I may have left out some essential features, but too bad. I apologise in advance if I tread upon any academic toes.)


Structuralism is merely a guiding philosophy. So it can be applied to almost any intellectual endeavours. The core essence of structuralism are the principles:

(P1) Everything (objects, thoughts, ideas, … can be studied as a system comprised of component parts. Structuralism first says, “identify the system of interest and isolate it’s parts”.

(P2) To understand any phenomena (physical or intellectual), you should [1] find the relationships between the irreducible component parts. [2] Abstract away (i.e., ignore entirely) any non-essential features, such as properties that are not inherently part of the most basic structure of your system, i.e., those properties which are not connected by any relationship to the principle components your wish to study. Then, [3] analyse (if this is your intent) the whole system by using any and whatsoever tools you have available or can find or invent that reveal the interactions between these parts and the effect the state of the whole system has on these relationships.

(P3) To understand a system it is not necessary to break it up into the absolute minimalist parts possible, but rather to analyse it at some level of abstraction: this could be a complete reduction to atomistic parts (physicists do this), or a near reduction but only down to molecular level (chemists do this), or it could be any manner of chunking of components from chemical up to biological, or (as cosmologists prefer) stellar or galactic chunks. But structuralism applies not just to nature, the same levels of chunking can be performed on ideas, such as language, art, economic systems, religions, you name it, any system. And what isn’t a system?

To elaborate upon these core principles of structuralism I’d just add a few comments:

(1) Even a single subatomic particle is a “system”, albeit the simplest kind, one with only one component part. Having only one part merely makes structuralist study of an elementary particle pretty boring. (Only it’s not really. But that’s because quantum mechanics makes a grand ‘vacuum field’ out of all elementary particles, so it’s never just a single entity. But that’s another essay.)

(2) Examples are plenty: In Anthropology: The mathematician Andrei Weil helped Claude Levi-Strauss organise the study of kinship relations in human societies using the mathematical apparatus of Group Theory. Their data was the patterns of allowed marriages amongst Australian Aboriginal families. They ignored (abstracted away) all things like wealth and material possessions, geography, etc. In Linguistics: Jakobson and then later Chomsky and successors, have had tremendous success understanding language (origins, acquisition, learning, evolution, the whole gamut …) by abstracting away spelling and meanings and analysing using logic just the grammar or deep structure. How did they do this? Well, taking away spelling and meaning leaves you with no workable communicative language for sure, but it does leave behind a skeleton of all languages. That’s the power of structuralism. It gets rid of stuff you do not need, and leaves just the essentials, which makes analysis much easier and less clouded.

The linguists were not interested in communication you have to understand. Their goal was to understand how language is acquired and developed across human life times, and how it evolves across civilisation time frames. Since you do not need to know about the poetry and literature of a society for such studies, you can abstract out the word meanings, and just leave very abstract relations between types of words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.). Worrying about lyrics and poetry is just a distraction for linguists who want to study language universals, sine anything requiring translation is not a universal. But relationships between the way a language links nouns and adjectives and verbs is something universal, or if it’s not, then there should be some deeper structure which is universal (one hopes). And indeed, that was what Chomsky discovered.

In fact, so universal were Chomsky’s discoveries about structure of languages that they even apply to computer languages! They apply to fictional languages like Klingon. And they will probably apply to extraterrestrial species languages, if we ever contact extraterrestrials.

In Economics every economist who develops a mathematical model for features of a subsystem within an economy is applying structuralism. They may not call it structuralism, but that’s what it is. It’s the same in most other sciences. In Mathematics, well, I mean mathematics itself is almost entirely structure, perhaps the purest form of structuralism known. Although pure structure does not quite define mathematics, it is a large part of what mathematics is — the particular structures of numbers and geometry and sets and categories.

Why Structuralism is Not In Vogue

The laughable thing is that structuralism is put into practise all the time, every day, by most people in most professions. This still includes artists, but most prominently it means scientists in any discipline, mathematicians (of course), politicians, business managers, sometimes lawyers (although that particular profession is a bit dark for me). There is no field of human intellectual endeavour these days that does not have professional tools that in some form or another embody the above principles of structuralism. And, of course and naturally and obviously and all those cliché’s, structuralism was practised for millennia before it ever had the label “structuralist”. The ancient Greek philosophers were structuralists, as were the ancient Egyptian linguists, as were the Stone Age artists and inventors and speakers.

So when we say structuralism is “not in vogue”, this just means it is not considered trendy in circles of philosophy where it is discussed (or used to be discussed) as a guiding principle. It’s been supplanted by post-modernism, which is less well-defined and entirely useless for doing anything actual practical and helpful in this world. So if you consider yourself a “structuralist” and feel that post-modernism is a rabbit-warren of confusing and contradictory ideas with no logical basis, then you are not alone. Maybe post-modernism has some importance to the world, but other than generating a lot of dry academic papers (and pretty much limited only to literature and philosophy journals) over the last fifty years or so, I cannot find it.

OK, I know I’m not being fair to post-modernists. But come on! What are the real fruits of post-modernist ideas? I am open to opinons, and will admit I might be wrong about post-modernisms (lack of useful impact) impact on society. If there is a good idea within it’s scope I guess the idea that human beings and our ideologies are not fixed and static, and that people with different world views do not necessarily have wrong world views, and that ambiguity and paradox are possible and signify a coexistence of differences that may have a deep hidden resolution which we are just too dumb to figure out. These are useful ideas because they give one a reason for believing in the possibility of peace.

The peace which comes from realising there are always more than two ways of seeing things, and none of them might be perfect. That’s my positive gloss on post-modernism, and if it is halfway correct and valid then let’s celebrate post-modernism. But I think the literary criticism and philosophical movements associated with post-modernism have not really contributed such positve ideas on a global reach. They should have, by my humble reading, and I’m a bit mystified why they have not been so forceful. But maybe that’s just a demonstration of my own ignorance. I’ll leave readers to comment on that (typically one doesn’t appreciate their own ignorance until informed of it by others).

Structuralism on the other hand has immediate and clear practical use and is really quite a helpful sort of way of thinking about the world, or about the part of life you are interested in. It has transcended philosophy because it is hardly discussed in philosophy any more, and yet is used by practical people every day.

My pet theory on this is that when ordinary people start to take up a branch of philosophy it starts to become boring for philosophers. Philosophers (most of them I suspect, at least those who call themselves philosophers) have some kind of built-in ego drive which forbids them from thinking of themselves as ordinary. (But, I also suspect, the very best philosophers go against this grain, and are truly humble and consider themselves as the most ordinary of people.)

But be warned. Structuralism is not everything. Plenty of stuff falls outside it’s scope. Nevertheless, it is a vastly useful philosophical method, because it is so general and has proven practical worth.

Spiritual Structure

One question I am currently interested in is whether structuralism has anything to offer our understanding of spirituality. You know what I mean by spirituality? No? Well, it’s not ghosts and stuff.

Spirituality is a very natural and easily understood aspect of human existence. It means things like love, justice, honesty, compassion, kindness, wisdom (and knowledge), forgiveness, mercy, friendliness, and all such similar virtues and attributes of divinity. That’s all.

Whatever concerns these things is precisely what I refer to as spiritual reality. It’s a separate reality to physics because none of it can be reduced to physics. But it is connected to physics through the existence of sentient intelligence, like human beings. Human beings have an ability to comprehend and innately feel spiritual reality, but you cannot isolate it from human interaction and existence. Without sentient intelligence to comprehend these abstract things, there is no spirituality.

So is there structure and pattern and relation between spiritual realities?

Here’s a visual puzzle: what does the following diagram represent?


(Hint: the bite out of the apple is a misdirection. It’s nothing to do with a computer technology/company.)

I’ll leave that question hanging here for a while I think. It’s good to ponder. For a start you need to have a clear idea in your mind of what is meant by a spiritual reality, and what systems it might imply and what structure there is within those systems.

It’s a difficult area of analysis because spiritual reality is already highly abstracted. It ignores physical stuff, and concentrates our attention on the high level interactions between spiritual entities. So human beings are a physical form of spirituality. But to study spirituality we want to drop as much of our biology and physics as possible, retaining only what is minimally necessary for understanding the abstractions of love and mercy and justice et cetera.

Spiritual Minimalism

One of the great things about this way of thinking is that “negative abstract concepts” like hate, oppression, injustice, do not have the same status as the associated positive concepts. The negatives are merely the absence of the positive. So, to take a physical analogy as illustration, darkness is the absence of light. Light (photons or electromagnetic waves) are a reality, it is stuff (structure in spacetime if you wish to know) which exists. Darkness and shadow do not have such an independent existence, they are the absence of light photons, they exist only as secondary reality, their existence depends upon the prior existence of light and an object which blocks the light and another object which receives the light and shows up the shadow.

You might disagree or find flaw in this idea, the idea that spiritual negatives are merely absences. But it does seem to pan out when you think deeply about it. Take hatred, often seen as a highly active emotion. You really hate someone (let’s say). How can this ever be interpreted as merely the absence of love for this person? Perhaps they’ve done something so horribly evil that there is simply no way you can ever find anything about them to love. So you hate them. Thinking deeply about this, really it is this persons actions or speech or other outward behaviour or appearances which you are hating. These are not the person themselves. You have no idea what is or has been going on in their head. They could be a totured psychopath. Or a deeply misunderstood person. And when you really think about it hard, you do not really hate them, but you feel incredibly sorry and sad for their condition. They become pitiful, in a very literal sense, you feel absolute pity for them. You think that their death might be the happiest thing that could happen for them (in the extreme case — I do not advocate death penalties — just the idea of their death seems like the best release for everyone, them, you, society). In any case, you find little love for this person, and in the end you pity them. Hatred was an emotion you felt along the way, but it has dissolved in the end (some people never get through to this stage and will hate for the rest of thier lives, and ironically this is in turn slightly pitiable, but I guess we can’t be judging how people feel, feelings are what they are, and I only know they can change over time). If it does dissolve, that is good I think, but it still leaves no love.

So there you have it, an absence of love, revealed, eventually, as a source of prior hatred. Because when you’ve finally reached the stage of feeling utter sorrow and sadness for someone who just cannot in any way be loved, you can only be happy and let go of your hatred if you leave the loving of this tragic person up to some higher power, some entity more capable than yourself for dispensing a measure of love. At the very least, you might be able to say that, “if this person had had more love earlier in their life then maybe I would not have ended up hating them so much.” Maybe you can’t say this, but you might be able to accept it as a possibility? You move on. Or at least, I hope you would.

The (hate)=(absence of love) example is the most extreme I could think of, so it suffices to make the point. I won’t elabrate further.

The late William Hatcher wrote about spiritual minimalism and paved the way for us. Sadly he is not with us to help continue. But I think there are some good things that can emerge from spiritual minimalism. Not the least of which is a deeper understanding of how differing human approaches to happiness and well-being are related, and how the divergent religious beliefs that co-exist in the world are distractions which hide deeper and more peaceful and enduring universals of peace and societal cohesion and unity within a greater diversity.

Spiritual Forces

It is the dark/light analogy which interests me after reading Hooper Dunbar’s lectures, printed in “Forces of Our Time” (Hooper C. Dunbar, George Ronald, Oxford, 2010). The subtitle of his lectures is, “The Dynamics of Light and Darkness“, but it’s not a physics book on optics!

It is a book about the forces which shape individuals and society. By “individuals” we mean any sentient being living within a complex society. And so, when you think about it for a while, you realise these “forces” he is talking about must be abstractions of the notion of “force” borrowed form physics. So Dunbar must be using an analogy or metaphor here. And I would very much like to understand it better because I think it will add to the question (or to the answer) of how structuralism can be applied to understanding human spirituality, and thus help me to escape from the vague stuff about spirituality that comes under the heading of “New Age” or “Mystical”.

I try to avoid mysticism, since it is literally a mystery to me. But I know such things (human spirituality) is not approachable with hard sciences either, because nothing subjective can be made completely scientific. But, with some help, and with some creative analogies and metaphors, I think some structure can be found. (A very new-agey Bahá’í once suggested this was possible to me! — that was after a lecture I had given on quantum mechanics and it’s implications for the harmony of science and religion — for which I concluded there was no current analytical connection between this physics and religion, but there were a few philosophical bridges only, such as the possibility for free will in a universe with non-deterministic laws.)

The launching point I had for this essay was the following brief excerpt from Forces of Our Time (page 6.):

“Another profound and important tool for investigating spiritual reality is the awareness that spiritual truths are expressed at every level of creation. There is a crossover between truths at one level of being and those at another level of being, so that if we understand a relationship or pattern of physical reality, we will find that the same relationship exists not only in varying instances within the physical world itself but also, in a higher set of circumstances, in the spiritual realm.”

That’s pretty exciting to me. If it all pans out. But who’s to say it does? Is this guy Dunbar on to something or is this just philosophical hot air? He continues,

“Knowledge of nature and spiritual knowledge are essentially the same thing because the physical world that scientists study can be seen as an expression of spirit — as tangible reflections of spiritual truths.”

It gets a bit vague though, since the connections are tenuous. One fairly concrete analogical connection is with Love and Gravity. Gravity is the universal attractive force in the celestial sphere (the physical cosmos in other words). Love is likewise (the universal attractive force) in the spiritual sphere.

I guess my problem is that this really is only a metaphorical connection, and it can only ever be such between physical and spiritual. But let’s play with this and see where it goes. If there is anything to Dunbar’s philosophy (and as I understand it he is speaking primarily of the ideas he has borrowed from Bahá’í philosophy) then there should be a lot more structure which can be related by this primary analogy from Gravity to Love.

(That’s the puzzle solution BTW ‐ the apple was my symbol for gravity, you know … Newton and all …)

My next post, Forces In and Out of Time picks up this topic and takes it further.

Parting Thoughts of Structuralism

The irony about trying to understand the definition of structuralism is that the very idea it encapsulates is so incredibly general that it is hard to pin it down without examples, and the essence of structuralism is so simple that it hardly merits a definition. It is simply what one has to do in order to understand any system comprised of many parts. You have to break apart it’s structure (and there is often more than one way of doing so, which adds to the apparent ambiguity of the idea of structuralism) and extract the essential relationships between the parts, and forget about the non-essentials.

There is an art to this of course, since if you fail to ignore some non-essential relationship or parts, then you will have too complicated a structure which will perhaps defy or at least hinder a useful analysis.

And what is “a useful analysis”? Well, this too is frustratingly vague or too general. But I would define it as anything which helps to achieve your purposes. So first you need a purpose. If it to discover and label the underlying similarities across a vast family of languages then a useful structural analysis will consist in an abstract of language which can be shown to be an umbrella structure covering all the languages in the family. But it will be a description at a high level of types of word (a deep level correspondence), not at the word-words correspondence level itself (that’d be a machine translators purpose, and would be described as a surface level structural correspondence).

Another example: if you wished to understand how market crashes arise in economics you would not bother with the structure of prices of commodities in economics, but would instead study (probably) the interactions between agents using the pricing systems, since that is where the euphoria and panics in market bubbles and crashes happens.

OK, that’s all for now. Later I hope to write more on structure of spiritual reality, if it’s possible. It’s all unknown territory to me, so please send in any comments if you are still reading!

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