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
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 Energy ↔ Force
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.