The Foundations Project – Life Paradoxes: Either-or, Reality

Life is a Paradox! (H)

Life is full of Paradoxes? (J)



1. Introduction: Much discussion lately, and over the eons of thinking about the human, consider the notion that much of life seems to be about opposites in our lives: e.g., good and evil, night and day, sleep and wakefulness, change and permanence, life and death, female and male, pathology and health, right and wrong…hot and cold.


(Note that the very idea of opposition – paradoxically – places sometimes very different ideas into kinds of juxtaposition – in a relationship – where they seem, at least, to be obviously “opposed.�����������������������)


They seem to have reached a time of greater attention as most of the world’s traditions are increasingly wandering in all of our being and thinking.


Interesting, in some cases, this has raised the importance of one side of some opposition or paradox to positions of importance or power in our lives and thinking – while the other “side” has been made unimportant, attacked, reduced, derogated…wrong.


The increasing “attacks” on women are a case in point – making it seem obviously or purely political – but this, I think, oversimplifies what is occurring. The notion of paradox often seems to heighten the import-ance of the relationship, and focuses on the differences as gaining more or less power.


As we will examine, I propose that this is occurring within a great or more encompassing notion about reality: e.g., permanence is “real,” while change is an “illusion” – some form of whatever is seen as opposed to reality (ideas deriving mainly from Plato and Pythagoras, but alive and thriving in Christianity/Islam).


How is this occurring? The rise of “strong” religion – especially in the Western tradition – has raised the idea of permanence to a literal defining of the nature of reality – while change is either reduced to very little importance, equated with “chaos,” or used to bolster the notion that death “defines” the actual human condition while life is some sort of chimera. (Augustine an important developer of these ideas: “fall to earth.”)


But some of these pairs of opposites are not merely opposites – and we have to already see or know that such opposites have a bond or enduring similarity – in order to note the paradox.


If, as many have attempted, we combine these in some sense of structures which have meaning somehow, we think we have gotten closer to the actuality of the human and of the human condition.


And to the extent that they are “life paradoxes,” we have to deal with them. For example, the question of male and female is not merely an idea, but an actuality, a fullness, which sets our lives in order, gives it direction (or not, but usually actively).


The paradox of change vs. permanence can operate in our very being to cause us to wonder and wander in each moment of our being: the present, past, and the often agitating directives of the future, and each of our futures.


This is to state that life paradoxes are fairly ubiquitous in our being, and enter into our thinking about being in powerful, but usually obscure, hidden, or merely habitual ways. They come into our thinking or thoughts in odd and often interesting ways, but usually float along, as if they are mere parts of being, not all that different, say, from our ability to move or use our limbs to accomplish what we might need to do.


This is not to state that they are unimportant in our being, but that they rise to “power” in different ways in different times in one’s life, or variously in the “histories” of different traditions of thought…mostly about the human, but they usually include some sense of the human with respect to other parts of forms of life-nature.


Occasionally, in history, these oppositional pairings have not merely been lived or noted. They have risen to ���importance” (kinds of transcendental centrality), in thinking about the human, existence, and the world. In some contexts or “traditions,” one side or aspect of a paradox has been taken as the truth ��������� the way things are. Instead of a paradox, the notion that life is a paradox, they have effectively been raised in import as a kind of explanation of how things are, or the how the world is.


In such cases, the attempt has been made to resolve them: to claim that one or the other of some pair is more…real, actual, the ways things are. Instead of placing or of seeing all oppositions as within the broadly human condition, one or the other has been chosen as preferred, destined, as least bad…


Western thought, an important example in framing our understanding of the world and of ourselves, has focused, particularly, on resolving the change-permanence paradox on the side of permanence. What is changing is somehow less real, less true; and the overarching reality is that which does not change: the idea of the deity is, probably, the most pervasive and powerful notion which has arisen from this re-solution to what I will be labeling life paradoxes.


In the traditions which seem to want/need to resolve life paradoxes on one side or the other (e.g., dreams are real in Amerindian traditions, waking is real in Western thinking, while dreams are some sorts of commentary on real – awake – life), the very definition or idea of what is (really) real, arises to define itself.


Permanence is the really real; or change is what there is. As we shall see, both are the case in the human condition (at the least), and the attempt to resolve them – in this case, particularly, on the side of permanence, has created some powerful ideas and thinking which resonate widely and often powerfully. (Christianity and Islam take the notion of permanence as the really real; which interprets life and experience as questionable, as chimera or dream.)


In the East, where the ideas of Confucius and his heirs continue to dominate in many senses, the question of change and permanence or continuity, has been considered to be complementary rather than oppositional. No need to firmly or finally resolve the question of time and change once and for all: there are moments of and for change, and others in which permanence reigns. Consult the “I Ching,” whenever the paradoxes of life seem problematic or an issue in anyone�����s life experience. (This is further framed by the notion that everyone wills to live the longest life – wisdom will increase – and needs to work at that.


I call them life paradoxes, because they seem to derive or arise from our being or experience, more than they are givens in our existence. Life and death seem to arise from our early realizations that we/I will eventually die. If we choose to focus (primarily) on life, or upon death, our thinkings and ideas expand and often pervade much of the rest of our being.


It is similar – though less obvious in our usual experiences – that we regard the time of our waking lives as the actuality of our being, and dreams are considered to be some commentary upon our waking, presumably conscious being.


I learned only gradually while doing anthropological-linguistic work with some highland Mayan (Tzotzil) Indians many years ago, that the life of dreams is considered or understood by some to be more real than what we (Western thinkers) consider to be the real. In continuing conversations with Amerindian thinkers, this idea seems to be quite widespread: dreams are or occur when our (true) “spirits” leave our bodies and re-enter the worlds where we share spirits with (other) animals. (This, in turn, raises deep questions about our being, and relationship to (the rest of) nature.


(An incidental notice: most Amerindians I have known and inquired of, seem to have quite a few other persons in their ongoing being: i.e., they are actively in their thinking. I have J. always present, for certain, but others move in and out – or I can invoke their presence in my active thinking – e.g., now dead parents on their birthdays (elsewise too, but not obvious) in my ongoing thoughts/thinking.


This is to say that the framing of this discussion takes us upon a journey which is about the real or actual of our being; what is truth, or not (or whether there is clarity or unclarity, or both). This discussion, particularly as it takes place in the current time of the rise of religious thought and activity, may enable us to understand the human more as we are, than how we may have said we are.


2. Male and Female: Female and male. An oddity, opposition? A life-paradox. This is how I am, what they gave me; a peculiarity of being, being one or the other in some anatomical senses. Not a “surprise.” (Or an enormous surprise? To be accepted/rejected?)


Oddly, interestingly, most of the notions we have of the nature of the human – and all that follows from this, which is most everything – is a male(’s) story. The metaphor for how we are and know, is usually a little boy looking out at the world: how does he get knowledge of the world? Whether or how that is in any ways different from how little girls know – has not much been raised in the human nature discussions. (Knowing you can or will have a your own baby – a girl’s “notion” – doesn’t much arise in what knowledge is! Questions of how we conceive of our futures ������������������������� birth, death, maturity, mating…) – don’t seem to have much gotten into our theories of knowledge!)


We look back to Plato, Pythagoras, Parmenides (usually anti-Heraclitus) to find out how we and the world are: the paradox which reigns over reality, dwells here on change VS permanence. We don’t much consult the women philosophers (note that philo-sophia is a woman), or return to the Delphic Oracle who was depicted standing naked above a hole in the earth’s surface, receiving all of knowledge, of what there is, through her orifices: “know thyself,” she advised/admonished.


Instead, we in the West have decided that our knowledge is through our minds: reduce or get rid of the body, banish bodily being to discern how we are, really. Banish women from the frameworks of being human; their bodies are “changing” all the time, anyway (as if men’s aren’t!) And to find out how we are, look rather at animals, and “see” how we are “different” from them, “unique” in existence. Rather, look mostly at domestic animals, who are obviously dumb, and think that what is human is somehow smart: language, rationality…all of that.


Men – carry the sperm which they “need” to spread, to push into the woman, in order to carry their genes forward into the world, and keep the world…afloat. Women are receptive, passive. Fuck them! Men do what we have to do. Not much thinking in this depiction, after all. (What to do with/about one’s sexual impulses: a major life-setting issue! “Go to the world with the mind alone” – advised Plato. Make those lusts/loves go to hell. (Maybe easier to “blame” women for men’s lusts?)


Women, the fact that they bear the guy’s baby, doesn’t much penetrate their actualities, particularly after birth. The after-birth experience of women is seen as solely passive – Knowledge, being: the individual child develops, gets language, gets to know…essentially on its own.


But the relationship between m/other and child is thoughtful, continuous, and intense; the momentary and daily interaction of the women and her child are virtually total. Man and woman, we are all involved in the realities of the those interactions which got us from birth to knowledge to this moment. Yet, all this is virtually absent, missing from the story of our being; we have resolved this paradox on the side of the man: at least in Western thought.


In these days of the “rise” of religious thought and activity, I wonder that women aren’t being pushed down, in a deep sense, because they represent the future: life, inspiration, her child who will go forth into the world, and become the future. In the religious contexts which the West has promulgated, this moment is largely a return to the past: to authority, prophets/prophecies, texts, all of which are taken as ways and means to tell us how the world, how we, “really are,” and how reality really is.



3. Life and Death: Writing on this day – June 6, 2006, the call of the text in the Book of Revelation, to protect us against the rise of the Evil of all of being and time: 666.


This paradox seems to reside in the minds and being of all humans (others? – likely), from the age of 5 or so, on. I – the sense of self, myself, my self, will no longer exist at some moment, in the murky future. This thing, me/I, is now alive – breathing, moving, thinking, relating to others. Not now, but then, someday: later…or sooner.


(This clearly raises all the questions about being – ourselves. What is this self, the person I call me, myself, I? How do I “know” the present and past, foresee the future – in which I have to take care that I continue to be…but, no matter what, I/me/myself eventually will not continue to be in all these senses of self, actuality. How do/did I get to be me, how locate, remember, imagine, project…? = Human Agency, which, as Dewey reminds, us is mostly thought-less habits, which remain background-ed in the “obviousness” of being.)


For many Christians and Muslims ��� particularly – involved, obsessed, convinced that life is more an aspect of death, rather than or less than part of the ongoingness which is life: especially, “my” life. (Not to underestimate the power and importance of the life of some others: family, friends, deep enemies, the dangerous, the…)


Christianity and Islam are, deeply as far as I (can) understand, concerned with death: the resurrection of Christ, the God of the Qur’an is the God of the Day of Judgment. Perhaps, obsessed, directed by the most primary of all questions: what is (really) real – death or life. Death is a heavy favorite in Western thought: ways to get over the fear of death (ways to create that self-same fear so conquering it rises to the center of our beings ��� and instructs us that non-being is more real than being).


Intellectually, it got its major shape from the writing of Plato – who provided Socrates with the role of celebrating the overcoming of the fear of death in the dialogue “Phaedo”; more in the “Apology.” He had been condemned to death for screwing up the minds of his students – the elite youth of Athens. His solutions (“Republic X”: go to life with “the mind alone��� – grant the mind perpetual life, and death will (fear of death) will be reduced to practically nothing. Ideas are real, higher than our being, which is only a copy. The senses, our senses, our very being is a shadow; the light of our knowledge remains murky, at best.


For the rest: solutions and/or directions – live a good life, take good care of self (and others), do good works, love…life, others, everyone, nature…oneself…sufficiently and life will become good, sufficient, a celebration.


(And then, there’re those women who can bring new life into being – on ongoingness of life ��� a sense that death doesn’t exactly “exist.” Life just takes different forms.)


Or those whose sense of life is “shared” with nature: sharing of spirits with other species, a commitment to our mothers – the earth is our mother. We are responsible to life, to the earth, to our mother, for at least seven generations. A widespread Amerindian philosophy.


And there are those followers, descendents of Confucius and his descendents, who puff-up life to whatever its ultimate: wisdom, growth, go on for-ever in life. There is always direction, ways to go within life. Death…? Live long enough, well enough – by any/many definition and the idea/fear of death will diminish�����������������! Move, do t’ai chi; qiqong; get into the ideas (actualities?) of the martial arts. Or, for the Jews: l’chaim!




4. Change and Permanence: Whether because of its usual relatedness to life and death, or because this paradox intrigues and itches us (particularly in certain moments of history, and each of our lives), or…


In Western thought, the paradox of change and permanence is (very) central to all of our thoughts both about our being and about the world. In some deep senses, it is invoked or used or…to define what is (really) real.


In the history of ideas, it was (and remains) a battle between the ancient puzzler, Heraclitus – who thought that all was change (���you can’t walk in the same river twice”), and the tradition of Parmenides/Pythagoras/Plato who developed the “idea” that what is real is permanence.


(Being brought up in a secular Jewish family, this didn’t arise much in my youth. At that time in
American history, death was fairly “hidden,” not much discussed – only slightly less obscure than homosexuality during this period – 1930s, 40s.)


The paradox reigns in our lives: how can it be, how is it, that we are both the same person as we have been all our lives, how do we find or locate ourselves each day upon awakening – yet we are changing in each and every moment (or the world is changing…)?


Most of our theories about the human (being, condition, nature) have hovered about-upon this paradox. The locus of the New Testament and the Qur’an are concerned with death: but not merely in the paradoxical sense of death vs. life.


As these ���ideas” have “worked out��� in Western thought, the so-called dualism of mind and body has been invoked or thought to account for the human (often, the world). “How can the (physical) body be able to think or understand the world outside of its purview, the senses: Aristotle’s response, only humans have symbols which allow us to go beyond the here and now; animals have signs (also children) – tied to the sensible here and now. (A central issue for any attempt to solve or “get around” western dualism; I think Q-R system will do this!)


But the, some years ago J. got into the “I Ching,” and we realized that Confucian/Eastern thought didn’t dwell on the either/or of change and permanence: instead, change occurs or can be chosen from “time-to-time,” and permanence at other points. And, I got the sense that certain traditions of thought (Western) seem to keep their paradoxes unresolvable: while the East seems to “resolve” the paradox – both…and, in some ways and moments.


Once Heaven (death?) became the answer or metaphor for our “real” being ����� mostly via Augustine – and we ���fell��� to earth via our parents’ sins – the paradox got resolved: Heaven, God, death is permanence. Life (change) is “but a dream.” Baptism, abortion���whew!


Or, as Pythagoras developed the idea, permanence is “higher” (correct, real-er…) than change: more like the rational (math). As more rational minds are more like permanent (= the persistence of math/geometry), then males are smarter than females ��� because women are continually changing (whereas men don’t do the monthly mantra) – so a lovely paradox, has been turned into a political-religious-philosophy.


One more thing: why permanence becomes more “real” in this moment – very rapid change (as right now) seems to turn to “chaos” for many people, as they grab/grasp for permanence – usually they “return” to the usual prophets, texts, authorities to tell them what is what. (See: discussion of Heraclitus in RPOV). (On trying to discern why anti-female tendencies are rising in these times���?!)



a. Certainty and Uncertainty: a “sub-topic” of change and permanence!?


The notion of permanence contains within it (as it were) the idea that the universe is open, immense – but it is also bounded or complete: Heaven is a term or metaphor for the notion of permanence. The idea of God (or Gaia) – some “force” which “exists” irrespective of humans/us or anything else. Pray to the deity: He (most often – He) – created us, will sustain us. Our “souls” are aspects or, or related to the deity. Everything that is/was/will be is already determined: it is permanent, and also certain.


In this apparent (or derived) opposition (an “apparent” paradox?) – the parallel with change is equivalent to “uncertainty.��� Change implies some moment which is the “present” – a sense of memory which was/is the “past” ��� and the impending ideas of a future: which is (certainly) uncertain.


This becomes complicated because it overlaps with the paradox of male-female. Females are “always” changing (monthly cycles, blood, etc.) represent (actually) the future with babies, etc. Males are seen (see ourselves?) as more stable, consistent.


But an important aspect of outcome of this thinking, is that the reality of the world can be (and often has been) interpreted or understood, as the power of the past (time stopped!) to determine our world: prophets, texts (e.g., Biblical), truth is more believable (at certain moments of history) as it represents what has already occurred, or determined (e.g., God “created” man…) ��� this is all (seemingly) certain.



5. One and the Many (Parts and Wholes): (atomism vs. holism) see Plato’s Parmenides.



6. Good and Evil: (Not givens in the world: derived from the acceptance of paradox(es) being resolved and/or resolvable?!) Related often to Light and Darkness.


This oppositional pair seems, to me, less like a Life-Paradox, than some sort of derivation from (the lack of) an explanation of how/why humans are moral creatures.



The ideas underpinning the opposition between Good and Evil are that we are not moral creatures (by our nature) – thus we have to define, take-on, become Good persons, else we will decline into Evil.


And this basically already possesses a Western religious orientation that God represents good and Satan- or the anti-God (anti-Christ, etc.) represents or instantiates evil.


It presumes the idea of (a) God, taking-off generally from the Adam-Eve story. There are various traditions here – different prophets such as Zoroaster and Mani – who developed such ideas and carried them to very high important ��� epitomes.



7. Wakefulness and Sleep (Night and Day)


8. Appearance and Reality (Parmenides?)