What if we try to understand the physical universe according to a biological model—that is, as alive?
For the Protestant reformers, secular life was a preparation for our ultimate destiny: this world is a means to a higher end. However, as the sacred pole—God, the guarantor that life is meaningful and salvation possible—faded away, the original religious reason for that distinction (eternal life in heaven) was lost. The evaporation of the sacred left us with only the secular pole. As the mode of life became increasingly separated from any religious perspective or moral supervision, modern consciousness grew bereft of the spiritual orientation the Reformation had originally promoted.
It was with Darwin that the transition to a secular ethic was made complete. Darwin refuted the “argument from design,” the last remaining proof for God’s existence. Because evolution by natural selection doesn’t need a God to direct it, an all-powerful deity was no longer necessary to create the extraordinarily complex organisms, including us, that compose the web of life. In fact, for the secular world, God wasn’t needed at all.
That final Darwinian stroke left the modern West stranded, for better or worse, in a mechanistic and desacralized world, without any binding moral code to regulate how people were to relate to each other. The new secular universe, ruled by impersonal physical laws, is indifferent to us and our fate. We may not as individuals believe that or feel personally oppressed by its implications, but this secularization continues to remold our economic, political, and educational institutions. As the modern mind-set spread beyond the West, it has come increasingly to determine the social environment within which people around the globe live and act.
Although Darwin himself was religious—and troubled by the implications of his work—his theory was soon used to rationalize a new social ethic. Human life, too, is a struggle, in which only the fittest survive and thrive. This perspective seemed to justify the most ruthless forms of economic and political competition, as recent history shows.
According to the predominant secular paradigm, biological evolution is the result of material processes operating according to impersonal laws. But what if, instead of reducing biology to mechanistic physics and viewing the cosmos as a machine, we try the opposite and understand the physical universe according to a biological model—that is, as alive? As Joseph Campbell observed, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.”
In fact, there is a fundamental problem with the mechanistic model. A machine presupposes a machine maker: someone who designs and constructs it. A machinelike cosmos made sense as long as the universe was understood as having been created by God according to his own plan and purposes. As mentioned above, this was how the founders of modern science—Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, and others—understood the laws of nature. Without a Creator, however, the mechanistic model breaks down.
This does not, however, mean that we need to return to the idea of a transcendent Mechanic. Rather, the world can be understood as an organism, which constantly reorganizes itself and evolves new and more complex structures. As the philosopher Ervin Laszlo writes in Science and the Reenchantment of the Cosmos, this emerging scientific paradigm shares much in common with traditional, premodern understandings:
The notion that the universe is “connected, coherent, and whole” accords well with Buddhist teachings about interdependence. One might even call the idea an updated version of Indra’s net, a Mahayana metaphor that compares the cosmos to a multidimensional web with a jewel at each knot. Each of these jewels reflects all the others, and each of those reflections also reflects all the other reflections, ad infinitum. According to Francis Cook in Hua-Yen Buddhism, Indra’s net “symbolizes a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship among all the members of the cosmos.” Because the totality is a vast body of members each of which sustains and defines all the others, “the cosmos is, in short, a self-creating, self-maintaining, and self-defining organism.” In biological language, such a cosmos is self-organizing.
In Search of the Sacred, was written by David R. Loy, a professor, writer and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition. This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Tricycle Magazine as In search of the Sacred, Buddhist Reflections on the Secular.