Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Please consider this description of a living cell by Australian micro-biologist Michael Denton:

" Viewed down a light microscope at a magnification of some several hundred times, such as would have been possible in Darwin's time, a living cell is a relatively disappointing spectacle appearing only as an ever-changing and apparently disordered pattern of blobs and particles which, under the influence of unseen turbulent forces are continually tossed haphazardly in all directions. To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometres in diameter and resembles a giant airship large enough to cover a great city like London or New York. What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design. On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the port holes of a vast space ship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity. We would see endless highly organized corridors and conduits branching in every direction away from the perimeter of the cell, some leading to the central memory bank in the nucleus and others to assembly plants and processing units. The nucleus itself would be a vast spherical chamber more than a kilometre in diameter, resembling a geodesic dome inside of which we would see, all neatly stacked together in ordered arrays, the miles of coiled chains of the DNA molecules. A huge range of products and raw materials would shuttle along all the manifold conduits in a highly ordered fashion to and from all the various assembly plants in the outer regions of the cell.

We would wonder at the level of control implicit in the movement of so many objects down so many seemingly endless conduits, all in perfect unison. We would see all around us, in every direction we looked, all sorts of robot-like machines. We would notice that the simplest of the functional components of the cell, the protein molecules, were astonishingly, complex pieces of molecular machinery, each one consisting of about three thousand atoms arranged in highly organized 3-D spatial conformation. We would wonder even more as we watched the strangely purposeful activities of these weird molecular machines, particularly when we realized that, despite all our accumulated knowledge of physics and chemistry, the task of designing one such molecular machine - that is one single functional protein molecule - would be completely beyond our capacity at present and will probably not be achieved until at least the beginning of the next century. Yet the life of the cell depends on the integrated activities of thousands, certainly tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of different protein molecules.

We would see that nearly every feature of our own advanced machines had its analogue in the cell: artificial languages and their decoding systems, memory banks for information storage and retrieval, elegant control systems regulating the automated assembly of parts and components, error fail-safe and proof-reading devices utilized for quality control, assembly processes involving the principle of prefabrication and modular construction. In fact, so deep would be the feeling of deja-vu, so persuasive the analogy, that much of the terminology we would use to describe this fascinating molecular reality would be borrowed from the world of late twentieth-century technology.

What we would be witnessing would be an object resembling an immense automated factory, a factory larger than a city and carrying out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on earth. However, it would be a factory which would have one capacity not equalled in any of our own most advanced machines, for it would be capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours. To witness such an act at a magnification of one thousand million times would be an awe-inspiring spectacle.

To gain a more objective grasp of the level of complexity the cell represents, consider the problem of constructing an atomic model. Altogether a typical cell contains about ten million million atoms. Suppose we choose to build an exact replica to a scale one thousand million times that of the cell so that each atom of the model would be the size of a tennis ball. Constructing such a model at the rate of one atom per minute, it would take fifty million years to finish, and the object we would end up with would be the giant factory, described above, some twenty kilometres in diameter, with a volume thousands of times that of the Great Pyramid.

Copying nature, we could speed up the construction of the model by using small molecules such as amino acids and nucleotides rather than individual atoms. Since individual amino acids and nucleotides are made up of between ten and twenty atoms each, this would enable us to finish the project in less than five million years. We could also speed up the project by mass producing those components in the cell which are present in many copies. Perhaps three-quarters of the cell's mass can be accounted for by such components. But even if we could produce these very quickly we would still be faced with manufacturing a quarter of the cell's mass which consists largely of components which only occur once or twice and which would have to be constructed, therefore, on an individual basis. The complexity of the cell, like that of any complex machine, cannot be reduced to any sort of simple pattern, nor can its manufacture be reduced to a simple set of algorithms or programmes. Working continually day and night it would still be difficult to finish the model in the space of one million years."

And let me add my two cents to this astounding picture. The model that you would complete a million years later would be just that, a lifeless static model. For the cell to do its work this entire twenty kilometer structure and each of its trillions of components must be charged in specific ways, and at the level of the protein molecule, it must have an entire series of positive and negative charges and hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts all precisely shaped (at a level of precision far, far beyond our highest technical abilities) and charged in a whole series of ways: charged in a way to find other molecular components and combine with them; charged in a way to fold into a shape and maintain that most important shape, and charged in a way to be guided by other systems of charges to the precise spot in the cell where that particle must go. The pattern of charges and the movement of energy through the cell is easily as complex as the pattern of the physical particles themselves.

Also, Denton, in his discussion, uses a tennis ball to stand in for an atom. But an atom is not a ball. It is not even a 'tiny solar system' of neutrons, protons and electrons' as we once thought. Rather, it has now been revealed to be an enormously complex lattice of forces connected by a bewildering array of utterly miniscule subatomic particles including hadrons, leptons, bosons, fermions, mesons, baryons, quarks and anti-quarks, up and down quarks, top and bottom quarks, charm quarks, strange quarks, virtual quarks, valence quarks, gluons and sea quarks." Are these particles, found in every one of the ten trillion atoms in every one of the one hundred trillion cells that make up our bodies, the 'ultimate' particles? Or will even more advanced optical and chemical technology reveal these sub-atomic particles to be also, in and of themselves, vast force fields or lattices connected by whole series' of even more unfathomably minute particles?

And let me remind you again, that what we are talking about, a living cell, is a microscopic dot and thousands of these entire factories including all the complexity that we discussed above could fit on the head of a pin. Or, going another way, let's add to this model of twenty square kilometers of breath taking complexity another one hundred trillion equally complex factories all working in perfect synchronous coordination with each other; which would be a model of the one hundred trillion celled human body, your body, that thing that we lug around every day and complain about; that would, spread laterally at the height of one cell at this magnification, blanket the entire surface of the earth four thousand times over, every part of which would contain pumps and coils and conduits and memory banks and processing centers; all working in perfect harmony with each other, all engineered to an unimaginable level of precision and all there to deliver to us our ability to be conscious, to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, and to experience the world as we are so used to experiencing it, that we have taken it and the fantastic mechanisms that make it possible for granted.

My question is, "Why don't we know this?" What Michael Denton has written and I have added to is a perfectly accurate, easily intelligible, non-hyperbolic view of the cell. Why is this not taught in every introductory biology class in our schools? Why doesn't every member of our society know this information? If archaeologists found under the surface of our planet the remnants of any man made technology that even faintly resembled our biological technology, that approached the complexity and sophistication of a life form in even the feeblest way; why that would be the greatest discovery in the history of archeology. If aliens arrived here from elsewhere in the universe possessing technology that had a small fraction of the ability of the human body to replicate and to deliver consciousness and sensory awareness, thinking and memory, to the level that we enjoy it; that would again be a discovery that would have rewarded all the radio astronomers and UFO watchers, who have been waiting for such discoveries for decades, beyond their wildest dreams. Where are the poets who, inspired by this unfathomable technical magnificence, would write volumes in joyous praise to this gift of life?

To get some sense of the sophisticated mechanical nature of just one of the billions of molecular machines of the cell, consider these words, by biochemist Michael Behe, describing the workings of two protein molecules, myoglobin and hemoglobin, as they operate in our human bodies. (The non-italicized comments in parenthesis are mine.)

Myoglobin binds oxygen and stores it in muscles; it's especially abundant in the muscles of diving animals such as whales that have to endure long times between breaths. The protein chain of human myoglobin has 153 amino acids, 22 of which are positively charged, 22 negatively charged, 32 water-loving, and 57 waterfearing (oily). In eight segments of the protein chain, the amino acids are arranged so that roughly several oily ones are followed by a few water-loving ones, which are followed by several more oily ones, and so on. This arrangement allows the segment to wrap into a spiral in which one side of the helix has mostly oily amino acids and the other side mostly water-loving ones. The helical segments are stiff but the portions of the chain between the helical segments are rather flexible, allowing the helical segments to fold toward each other. Happily, separate segments can now interact and press their oily sides against each other in the interior of the now compactly folded protein, shielding them from water. (Amazingly, during the folding process 'chaperone' molecules arrive to protect the oily segments from the watery cytoplasm until the myoglobin is folded. This system of chaperone molecules protecting amino acids during the protein folding process happens not just with myoglobin but with many other proteins.) Their water-loving hydrophilic sides face outward to contact water. When all is said and done, the myoglobin chain has folded itself into the exquisitely precise form shown in Figure A.I.


A drawing of myoglobin by the late scientific illustrator Irving Geis. The numbered balls (encased in gray shading) connected by rods are the amino acid postions of the protein. (For clarity, details of the structure of the amino acids are not shown.) The flat structure in the middle is the heme. The sphere in the center of the heme is an iron atom. The letters mark different helices and turns in the protein. The folded shape of the protein is required for it to work.

The shape of the folded myoglobin allows it to bind tightly to a small, rather flat molecule with a hole in its center. The molecule is called "heme" ...... The heme itself is rather oily and fits into an oily pocket formed by the folded myoglobin, like a hand fits into a glove. Now, the heme is also the right size, and has the right chemical groups, to tightly bind one iron atom in its central hole. When the heme fits into the myoglobin pocket, a particular amino acid (the histidine at the eighty-seventh position in the protein chain; histidine is abbreviated as "H") from the myoglobin is precisely positioned to hook onto the iron and keep the heme in place. The iron in heme can bind......to six atoms. Four of those atoms are provided by the heme itself, and one is from the myoglobin's "H". That leaves one position of the iron open to bind another atom. The open position can tightly bind oxygen when it's available. All those features combine to allow myoglobin to fulfill its assumed role as an oxygen-storage protein in muscle tissue.

Again, don't worry about remembering those technical details.....the most important point for us to notice here is that myoglobin does its job entirely through mechanistic forces-through positive charges attracting negative ones, by a pocket in the protein being exactly the right size for the heme to bind, by positioning groups such as "H" in the very place they are needed to do their jobs. Proteins such as myoglobin don't work through mysterious or novel forces, as they once were thought to do. They work through well-understood ones, like the forces by which machines in our everyday world work.........

Believe it or not, myoglobin is one of the smallest, simplest proteins of the nanobot. What's more, myoglobin works alone, which is unusual among proteins. Most proteins work in teams where each protein fits together with others in a sort of super Rubik's cube, and each has its own role to play in the team's task, much as a particular wire or gear might have its own role to play in, say, a time-keeping mechanism in a robot. To give a taste of such teamwork.... I'll briefly discuss the workings of a protein system that is related to, but somewhat more complicated than, myoglobin.

Myoglobin stores oxygen in muscle, but a different protein, called hemoglobin, transports oxygen in red blood cells from the lungs to the peripheral tissues of the body. Although in many ways it is similar to myoglobin, hemoglobin is more complex and sophistiicated. Hemoglobin is a composite of four separate protein chains, each one of which is approximately the same size and shape as myoglobin, each one of which has a heme group that can bind an oxygen molecule as myoglobin does. So hemoglobin is about four times larger than myoglobin. The four chains of hemoglobin consist of two pairs of identical chains: two "alpha" chains and two "beta" chains......The sequence of amino acids in both the alpha and beta subunits is similar to, but not identical with, the sequence of amino acids in myoglobin. When correctly folded, the four subunits of hemoglobin stick together to form a shape like a pyramid. The subunits all have regions that allow them to adhere to each other strongly and precisely, in just the right orientation so that the right amino acids are in the right positions to do the right jobs.

The task hemoglobin has to do is trickier than myoglobin's. Myoglobin simply stores oxygen in muscles, but hemoglobin transports it from one place to another. To transport oxygen, hemoglobin not only has to bind the gas in the lungs where it is plentiful, it also has to release it to the peripheral tissues where it is needed. So it won't do for hemoglobin just to bind the oxygen tightly, since it then wouldn't be able to easily let it go where it was needed. And it won't do just to bind it loosely, because then it wouldn't efficiently pick up oxygen in the lungs. Like a Frisbee-playing dog that catches, brings back, and drops the saucer at your feet, hemoglobin has to both bind and release. Hemoglobin can bind oxygen tightly in your lungs and dump it off efficiently in your fingers and toes because of a Rube-Goldberg-like arrangement of the parts of the hemoglobin subunits...... When no oxygen is bound to hemoglobin, the iron atom of each subunit is a little too fat to fit completely comfortably into the hole in the middle of the heme where it resides. However, when an oxygen molecule comes along and binds to it, for chemical reasons the iron shrinks slightly. The modest slimming allows the iron to sink perfectly into the middle of the heme. Remember that "H" that was attached to the iron in myoglobin? (I knew you would!) Well, there also is an "H" attached in hemoglobin. As the iron sinks, it physically pulls along the attached "H." The "H" itself is part of one of the helical segments of the subunit, so when the "H" moves, it pulls the whole helix along with it. Now, at the interface of the subunits of hemoglobin, where alpha and beta chains contact each other, there are several positively charged amino acids across from negatively charged ones; of course they attract each other. But when the helix is pulled away by the "H" that's attached to the sinking iron, the oppositely charged groups are pulled away from each other..... What's more, the shape of the subunits is such that when one moves, they all have to move together. So hemoglobin changes shape into a somewhat distorted pyramid when oxygen binds, and electrostatic interactions between all of the subunits of hemoglobin are broken.

That takes energy. The energy to break all those electrical attractions comes from the avid binding of the oxygen to the iron. But here's the catch. Just as only one quarter dropped into the slot of a soda machine can't release the can, the binding of just one oxygen doesn't provide enough energy to break all those interactions. Instead, several subunits must each bind oxygen almost simultaneeously to provide enough power. That only happens efficiently in a high-oxygen environment like the lungs. Conversely, when a hemooglobin that has four oxygen molecules attached to it is transported by the circulating blood from your lungs to the low-oxygen enviironment of, say, your big toe, when one of the oxygens falls off, the others aren't strong enough to keep the hemoglobin from snapping back. The electrostatic attractions between subunits reform, which yanks back the helix, which tugs up the "H," which pushes off the oxygens. As a result, the remaining several oxygens are unceremoniously dumped off, exactly where they are needed.

My point in discussing the intricacies of the relatively simple molecular machine that is hemoglobin is not to tax the reader with details. Rather, the point is to drive home the fact that the machinery of the nanobot works by intricate physical mechanisms. Robots in our everyday, large-scale world (such as, say, robots in automobile factories that help assemble cars) function only if very many exactly shaped and precisely positioned parts-nuts, bolts, levers, wires, screws-are all in place and working. If they are ever built, artificial nanobots will also have to work by excruciatingly detailed physical mechanisms. Biological nanobots must do the same. There is no respite from mechanical complexity except in idle dreams or Just- So stories.

Many molecular machines in the cell are much more complex than hemoglobin, but all work in the same mechanistic way. There are proteins that act as automatic gatekeepers, regulating the flow of small molecules or ions into and out of the cell. There are proteins that act as timing devices; others that are molecular trucks to ferry supplies to different parts of the cell; still others that act as cables and winches, pulling on cellular parts that need to be together: One of my favorites is a protein called gyrase, which can literally tie DNA into knots. In terms of our big, everyday world; gyrase is somewhat like a machine that could tie shoelaces. In developing an intuition for how such molecular machines act, a good start is to ask yourself how a shoelace-tying machine might work in our big world, or how a clock might work, or a delivery system, or a reguulated gate. As you might suspect, they all would work by mechanical principles, and none of them would be simple.

And just to add one side note, before we move off the topic of hemoglobin: Your body manufactures hemoglobin molecules to the exact specifications detailed by Behe, without one amino acid out of place or one alteration of shape, at the rate of four hundred trillion times every second!

My question again is: why isn't biology taught in this fashion, as an understanding of organic mechanics as much as an understanding of organic chemistry? Before students have any grasp of what is going on in a cell, they are required to memorize long and tedious lists of foreign sounding amino acids and nucleotides and organelles. They may learn 'where' different things take place (transcription takes place in the nucleus, translation takes place at the ribosome, etc.) but no details of 'what' actually takes place. This knowledge is more the geography of the cell rather than the working of the cell. Look again at the descriptions of the function of the myoglobin and the hemoglobin molecules by Michael Behe. It is fairly detailed (of course it could be much more detailed), but is it hard to follow? Not at all. Looking past foreign sounding words like 'heme' and 'histidine' the actual mechanics are quite simple. Each particle is either positive or negative, either water loving or water fearing, and is brittle or supple. With this highly precise but basically simple knowledge a whole new understanding and appreciation of the complexity and working of a protein molecule, which is one of the billions of tiny machines hard at work within each of your one hundred trillion cells, is easily come by. So, once again, why is this knowledge being kept under wraps? Why the big secret?

The first reason is historic. Before we had any really grasp of the mechanical nature of protein molecules and how they are energized and combined to do the cell's work, we had some understanding of what was going on in the cell chemically. With our vision limited by the magnification of the light microscope and unable to see the actual workings of the cell, we were still able to detect, chemically, what was going into a cell and what was coming out. Further, within each organelle, within the nucleus, the ribosomes, the mitochondria, etc., we could detect, again, without actually seeing them, the results of the chemical processes within them. Although the knowledge of much of these workings is now known in the rarified evirons of microbiology graduate departments, the general public still thinks of cellular activity as primarily chemical and not mechanical. Given the current state of molecular biological knowledge one would think that university departments of 'organic mechanics' should rival or surpass in their enrollments departments of organic chemistry; but they do not even exist. Ostensibly the study of organic chemistry will lead to superior treatments and medicines for a wide variety of human ailments. Shouldn't we suppose, equally, that the study of organic engineering would lead to enormous advances in our human technology that would have a wide range of benefits in every field of human endeavor?

The other reasons for this obfuscation are, I think, more insidious. Science is taught, at least at the introductory levels, in terms of what is known. Our current technology allows us to see far more than we understand. With the processes of transcription and translation, with the processes of protein folding and combining, with the manner in which these proteins move to the exact spot where they are needed and the precise timing of their manufacture and delivery, we know 'what' is going on, but we don't know, precisely, 'how' it is done. Are scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists, afraid to reveal how much is unknown? Are they concerned that our gaps in understanding of cell mechanics will be filled in by people of a spiritual persuasion who will ascribe 'supernatural' causes for these gaps? Perhaps. In my own view, I am sure that the entire workings of the cell are both guided and mechanical. Of course there are mechanisms. There are mechanisms within mechanisms, within mechanisms, within mechansisms. There are whole levels of mechanisms that have yet to be discovered or even conceived of (at least by humans). Whoever and whatever operates in the physical world has to operate within the inviolable laws of physics and chemistry. If I intend to climb a mountain I can't just wish myself to the top. I have to mechanically burn the energy and use the muscles to overcome gravity. If I want to get into my house I can't just dream myself through the door. I have to mechanically open it. Intelligence is not just dreaming. It's figuring out ways, mechanical ways, of using energy to harness natural forces to realize those dreams. The transcendent, supernatural intelligence of the cell is evident not because physical laws are avoided, but because energy is used (metabolism) in absolutely astonishing,brilliant mechanical ways to bring about replication, growth, digestion, elimination, and responsiveness to light, sound, taste and touch.

Also, the one hundred trillion cells that make up our bodies are all factories. Within each of these factories are many, many millions of protein molecules which are the mechanical apparatus, the machines, of these factories. How do you describe a machine? The same way, basically, that Michael Behe described the workings of the myoglobin and hemoglobin 'machines' in the above insertion. You explain how it is 'designed;' how energy moves through the various parts and how 'the shape' of each part, whether that shape be cylinders, or pistons or pumps or wheels or levers, as it is charged with energy, interacts with the 'shapes' of the other parts enabling the work of the machine to get done. Yet the common understanding of a cell is not as a high tech factory crammed with amazingly sophisticated and precisely shaped equipment, but as a fairly undefined, amorphous space, a kind of biological beaker or test tube in which chemical reactions take place.

My contention is that the amazing details and specificity of this molecular equipment flies in the face of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory which contends that all this, almost endless, complexity and synchronicity, was arrived at by a random process of very rare genetic replication accidents. Also, from the Darwinian perspective, life was supposed to have evolved from simple beginnings. Yet we see breathtaking complexity within the cell, at the very beginning of life. And whatever knowledge we have now of the functioning of genes is about how genes specify different amino acids which combine into proteins. This is information about how genes determine the building materials, the chemical contents, of bodies. We know nothing, or, perhaps, next to nothing, about how genes determine the shapes that these proteins will take or how these proteins or combinations of proteins form themselves into the fantastically precise shapes and contours of ducts and membranes and tubes and processing centers and cilia and flagella; which shapes are essential to the entire mechanical functioning of the body. (Please note that I am not challenging the fact that genes specify proteins and these then form into specific shapes; but simply that we do not know how it is done.)Is it because evolutionary biologists are more comfortable talking about the chemical contents of amino acids and proteins and less so about the shapes they take, that the precision of these shapes and how integral they are to the functioning of the cell; in other words the entire mechanical design of the cell and its molecular machines, are hidden from the general public's view?

Now much of my blog does argue for the impossibility of genetic mutation and natural selection being able to produce anything resembling the complexity and coherence of even a 'simple' cell, never mind the one hundred trillion coordinated and synchronous cells of the human body. But what my opinion is is beside the point at this juncture. And Darwinian assumptions about the simplicity of cells, ideas that were popular one hundred and fifty years ago, are also beside the point. The point is: there is this fabulous design. However you think it got here, intelligently or randomly, the fact is: it actually is here. So let's not pretend it isn't.

We are all searching for common ground. We are all searching, in this increasingly crowded and inter-connected world, for a way of living in harmony and cooperation with each other. This cannot happen, I think, if there is no sense of mutual respect, and, to my mind, it is impossible to have respect for everyone if we don't have respect for ourselves. Again, however you think this fabulous equipment, that allows you to think and see and hear and respond and develop relationships and do what it is that you feel like doing; however you think it got here is beside the point. The point is that it did get here. It is here. You have it. I have it. Every person on this planet has it; and it is, regardless of who you are, or how the surface of your body is commonly regarded as to cultural standards of beauty, or how much health you enjoy or illness you suffer from; a technically awe-inspiring masterpiece.

Also we may have spiritual differences. I am absolutely clear that all this equipment, as fabulous as it is, is not me. I am that which uses this equipment and experiences life through the perspective of this equipment. I am not these amino acids and nucleotides and neurons and hemoglobin molecules that I study. I am that which uses those amino acids and nucleotides and neurons and hemoglobin molecules to experience my life. This equipment is not me; this equipment is here for me! I am grateful for this equipment. I am the recipient of this equipment. Again, you may think differently. You may think that you and the biological equipment that you are studying are one and the same thing. That you are this equipment; that you are trillions upon trillions of nucleotides and protein molecules that just happen to talk and think and see and hear. Okay, fine. That makes absolutely no sense to me, but, again, you are entitled to your opinion. But whatever your opinion is, that does not diminish one iota the breathtaking complexity and brilliance and beauty of this body/brain, whether you actually consider it to be you or to be your equipment, or whether you consider the creation of it to be intentional or some amazing accident.

Whatever the reason for the obfuscation, isn't it time to shine some light on what have been clearly the most amazing discoveries of this century and the second half of the last one? I think when everyone begins to understand at some level the magnificence that lies under our skin, then that may be the beginning of a growing self-respect and respect for others; a softening of the hierarchical nature of many of the institutions of our society and a diminishment of cruelty, injustice and abuse.

What do you think? Let me hear from you.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


It is often said by spiritual materialists (members of organized religion who believe that God is a particular person, with a particular name and a particular history) that to have a strong morality you must be a member of one of these spiritual material religions. That it is only these religious groups that have retained, through their sacred texts, divinely inspired sets of rules to dictate our behavior and without which there would be no morality and merely spiritual and social chaos. And, of course, the great majority of people in these groups believe that there is only one set of rules that is actually right, and that set of rules, of course, is the set of rules that is followed by their particular group.

Spiritual materialists also believe that spiritual spiritualists (people who do not believe in a particular religion but who believe or who experience the spiritual as the essential nature of the universe and who believe or experience God as a transcendent non-physical Being who is not separate from every individual being) have no morality at all; that they are consumed with the narrow and selfish goal of their own spiritual development and that they are slow or even non-responsive when it comes to confronting injustice or speaking out against immorality and abuse.

And spiritual materialists are reinforced in this thinking when they hear certain ideas that come from this spiritual community; not so much the ideas themselves, whose origins are ancient, but interpretations of these ideas which are really quite modern. Among these is the notion of karma, which is an eastern idea whose meaning is very close to the western idea that "you reap what you sow," that somehow the universe will punish you for deeds that violate the universal morality and the universe will reward you for deeds that are aligned with the universal morality. Also, that everyone is on a path, of which this particular life time is only one very small part, toward complete union with God or the Cosmic Consciousness, and that any perpetrator of immorality or injustice is just another being working out his particular path toward spiritual union.

This last part, which basically is saying, leave that evil-doer, that criminal, that tyrant, that abuser, alone, because he, too, is on a path and the 'universe' will be dealing with that person in due time (if not in this life time, then in another) is the modern spin on karma which not only gives the impression of, but which, if followed, actually leads to, spiritual and moral passivity. Yet remember that the idea of karma comes out of the world of spiritual spirituality. In this world there is no physical God with a baritone voice who metes out rewards and punishments. So how does the 'universe' express itself in this world view?

Most of us are not hermits. We do not live in complete isolation. We live in a society and our lives are enmeshed in a whole series of relationships with other people. For the great majority of us, the 'universe' expresses itself in the way that we are treated by these other people; in the quality of our relationships. You are part of 'the universe' for everyone else, just as everyone else is part of 'the universe' for you. If you witness an injustice, an abuse or a crime and say or do nothing, then, for that perpetrator, this is proof that the universe is indifferent. If you confront this perpetrator, or prevent him from this immorality, or take steps to insure that this person will not be able to do this kind of thing again, then, from the perspective of this particular criminal and this particular crime, the universe does care. So it is really not some 'magical' thing like a loose brick falling off a building and hitting you on the head which is supposedly 'the universe' settling some kind of score with you. Obviously, statistically, moral people and immoral people are equally the victims of falling bricks. And I don't want to talk about fatal mishaps, because that brings us into the realm of speculation and belief as to what happens to us after we leave our bodies. I want to talk about survivable misfortunes. So if one is seriously injured by a falling brick or by any other accident, the difference is in the kind of support and caring from other people that this accident engenders. Does this person's family and friends unite to make this victim's recovery from the falling brick as pleasant as possible? Does this victim realize in the aftermath of this accident the extent to which he is loved and appreciated? Or is this a person who's associates, even who's own family, think so poorly of him that they believe that he somehow deserved this misfortune? "He was greedy, selfish and abusive his whole life; so now let him fend for himself." Everyone is the victim of traumatic events at one time or another. I am not recommending them, and there is no need to seek them out, but when they do happen, they reveal to the victim, more clearly than at any other time, the extent to which he or she is valued by other people.

When you act or react in the face of injustice, crime or abuse, you are acting not only in service to the victim but also in service to the perpetrator. There are many abusers, many tyrants, many criminals, who, on one level, think that they are getting away with something and that they can do so because they are living in a morally indifferent universe. At the same time these people, on another level, a deeper level, suspect that maybe they haven't gotten away with anything at all. Whatever power or possessions they have managed to attain through their misdeeds, they fear may be taken away at any time when the means through which that power or those possessions were acquired is revealed. The servants, the aides, the sycophants, the groupies, the entourage that surrounds these people are always pleasant and obedient, but can they be trusted? The suspicion is that the only reason they are so docile and compliant is that they fear the consequences of not being docile and compliant, and that they secretly resent or even hate the perpetrator, even though they would never admit it. Perpetrators, even ones with enormous outward success, live in a world of painful isolation and fear; a world in which they can never allow themselves to be completely comfortable with another person and where the other person cannot allow themselves to be completely comfortable with them. If the ultimate experience of life is the experience of loving and being loved, or the experience of oneness, the perpetrator lives in a world in which he experiences neither.

Yes, this person is on a path where 'the universe' will eventually lead this person back to God and to oneness. But when? Why don't you, being a part of this person's universe, step forward now, call them out on their behavior, risk the consequences, and be the instrument of this person's spiritual development? Please be clear that I am not talking about any kind of priggishness here. I am not concerned with the hemlines of women's skirts or whether or not someone's underwear is visible. I am not talking about ever changing fashions or sexual mores. I am talking about a universal morality which is universal because that God given sense of right and wrong, no matter how we try to argue against it, or justify doing otherwise, is alive within us. I am talking about an essential morality that has nothing to do with etiquette or complicated rules of behavior or fads. I am talking about a basic sense of dignity and respect, of honor, that we should have for ourselves and that we should have for each other, regardless of what that other person may or may not have accomplished, how many possessions they have managed to accumulate, how many awards they have managed to win, what kind of clothes they wear, what kind of car they drive, what kind of house they live or don't live in, what gender they are, what sexual orientation they are, what religion, profession, body type, culture, race or age they are. It is what is embodied in the 'golden rule' and in the 'inalienable rights' enumerated in our American Declaration of Independence. I am talking about the understanding that we are made in the image of God, not the physical image, but that we are of the same spiritual essence as the Divine, and that we can, like the Divine, but in a very limited way, experience things and intend things and that we all have received this amazingly complex and beautiful gift of a human body and a human brain that allows us to experience this world in a particular way and to manifest our dreams and intentions within it.

How do I know, if I speak out against injustice and abuse, that I am not just expressing my own personal view? Isn't it dangerous to assume that anyone has a connection to the Divine and therefore knows what is right and wrong? But, if not you, then who? Do you really think that there is any other person besides yourself, who is better able to pass on the rightness or wrongness of a situation, who is better able to detect the presence of cruelty and abuse than you are? What blurs a person's judgment in these regards is a lack of information or any personal agenda, any ambition or interest that they might have in the outcome of a judgment, and any pre-existing prejudice or bias that they have toward another person (in other words arriving at a situation where you believe that one of the people, for whatever reason, is less worthy of dignity and respect and opportunity, than another). But everyone (and our jury system is based on this notion) is capable, if they are both adequately informed and disinterested, of determining, in terms of basic morality, what is right and what is wrong. This ability is not based on any foolish evolutionary argument that those people with the 'caring' genes survived more abundantly than those people with the 'selfish' genes. Genes are strands of sub-microscopic bits of nucleic acids. What would a 'selfish' nucleic acid or a 'caring' nucleic acid look like? It is, rather, based on a basic, God given innate moral sense that all of us have (although often clouded by the teachings of prejudice and entitlement). To the extent that we live in a moral universe, we do so because of the reactions of other human beings. When we are repulsed by cruelty, when we are in awe of courage and self-sacrifice, and when we admonish or praise people accordingly, then we create a moral universe. So, yes, this 'universal morality' is from the Divine, but to the extent that it is expressed, it is expressed through humanity. And within ourselves it is very clear to every one of us when we are doing right or wrong. Even when we cannot admit to ourselves that we did something wrong, we know immediately, that it is something that we have to justify.

So if you believe that a wrongdoer will be taught a lesson by the universe, then you, being a part of this person's 'universe' begin that persons instruction now. And please be clear that I am not talking about vengeance; about getting even. I am talking about not letting injustices, iniquities and inequities, stand. If you do, you do a disservice not only to the person who is the victim of this abuse and injustice, but to the perpetrator. Because the perpetrator really is on a spiritual journey, whether he or she realizes it or not. Your silence gives them the impression that they are getting away with something. People may go through their whole lives thinking they are getting away with something and not realizing until the very end that among all those people that they thought they had fooled, not one was actually fooled. In spite of their continual fawning, because they needed to hold on to their jobs or they feared the consequences of speaking out, they all realized what kind of person you were. Your fears that no one really liked or respected you, were true. Your aching loneliness was true. Your suspicion that everyone was using you, was accurate. Your suspicion that in this world, the world that you created, no one can be trusted, is true. But, if that one morally courageous person comes forward, not to punish, not for revenge, but to let you know that they are aware of what you are already aware of; that what you did was wrong;and that they can no longer have a relationship with you, at least a trusting, positive relationship with you, unless you mend your ways; then they will become, no matter how you first react to their message (positively or negatively), the first person in your universe that you can trust. They are the bearer of the first message from 'the universe' that it really does care, and your spiritual journey can continue.

Another notion from the world of spiritual spirituality that can give the impression of moral passivity is the law of yin and yang, or opposites. Yin and yang is based on the understanding that in this world, the visible world that surrounds us, we know things only in relation to their opposite. So we only know heat in relation to cold, dark in relation to light, up in relation to down, male in relation to female, and good in relation to evil. In other words, for there to be good, there must be evil; for there to be peace there must be war. I even heard someone proclaim recently that, because of this, he is not opposed to war; that we must have a concept of war in order to have a concept of peace.

Like the law of karma, the law of yin and yang is accurate, but it is not any justification for moral passivity. Let's take the war and peace part. It is important to note in this discussion that there is a big difference between someone who has a concept of war and someone who has an experience of war. Most people that have had an experience of war are quick to point out that their experience of it once they were actually in it was very different than their conception of it going into it. Most of our more aggressive politicians who casually prescribe war as an instrument of foreign policy have had only a concept of war, while those politicians who have actually experienced war are, as a whole, far more cautious about committing their country and a whole new generation of soldiers to another one. Now whether any of us actually experience war again in our life time, we will still have a concept of war. We live in a culture. This culture has an oral, written, photographic and cinematic history. As long as those still exist we will know, at least conceptually, about war. So, it will not be necessary for any of us to actually experience the killing and being killed, the maiming and torture and the destruction of entire communities, that is the actual ingredients of an actual war, to be able to understand it, or to be able to appreciate peace.

All of these opposing states can be arranged in a gradient. If there is a little tension at a certain time between you and your friend, this could hardly be considered a war. Yet there is enough difference between the experience of that tension and the closer experience when that tension is lifted for you to appreciate that closeness and take steps to avoid that tension developing again. The same thing for good and evil. You do not have to experience your family being raped, murdered and dismembered in order to know evil and to experience its opposite. We live within a range of all these gradients. When we experience a really hot day we have greater appreciation for a cool evening. But none of us have experienced the temperature at the surface of the sun. We couldn't survive such an experience; just as none of us have experienced absolute zero. So we understand heat and cold from a, thankfully, limited perspective. I am sure that none of us would want to have anything more than a conceptual understanding of either absolute zero or the surface of the sun. And certainly the same is true with good and evil. Evil may be too strong a word for cheating on a test. But the quickening experience that you have when you do it, the fear of being caught, the isolating feeling that you got away with something, something that must be kept as a secret, and that you don't really measure up to those other students that did well and did not cheat, is enough of an experience to be able to understand and appreciate the calmer, cleaner and much more gratifying experience of having competed fairly and still been successful.

We do not need more evil in the world in order to appreciate good. There is already way more than enough for us to understand it. And it is in the very nature of our condition, where we are always having to choose between pursuing our own selfish goals at the expense of others or making choices that are best for everybody involved, that we come to understand good and evil anyway, and understand it on a manageable level of intensity that we can recover from. If I have cheated on an exam, I will get down on myself, but not so much that I no longer think of myself as capable of improvement or redemption. The same may not be able to be said of a mass murderer. He may have become so vile in his own estimation that he cannot ever imagine himself capable of improvement or being able to ever enter again the close and trusting society of honorable people. So rather than enhancing our ability to appreciate goodness, the commission or even the witness of truly horrible evil may be overwhelming to our sensibilities and make any future experience of goodness, at least in this life time, impossible.

And all of these examples are from our relative, changing physical world of people and things. In the spiritual world, goodness and peace are not relative. If you have been blessed with a moment when you have experienced the 'peace that passeth understanding,' the transcendent peace of the spiritually arrived, this is so far from our ordinary experience, it stands in marked contrast to anything we have ever experienced before anyway. We do not need to seek out or cause to engender what we think is its opposite. Everything in our normal life is markedly different from that experience anyway.

We also hear people of a spiritual persuasion using the term, "It's God's will." This phrase, or other phrases similar in meaning are commonly used to justify a kind of "what can you do?" passivity. But this is too superficial a view. It is also God's will that all human beings have a will. If God wanted us to be passive, neutral observers of world wide injustice, then we would not be equipped with a sense of moral outrage and the intelligence and strength to do something about it. The only reason that there is any cruelty and oppression in this world is that people, not disembodied forces, but people, whose passion for pursuing their own self-interest and greed is stronger, or expressed more openly, than the passion of people who have a moral sense of the greater good. If we burn with outrage at some major injustice; if we are so passionate about some cruelty that we or others experience or an abuse that we or others suffer under, that we are willing to risk our lives in an attempt to change that situation, then it is also God's will that we experience that outrage and that passion and that we organize ourselves and activate ourselves in order to rectify that situation.

In Viet Nam it was Buddhist monks that led the protest against the war. At home, clergy and religious people were at the forefront of the anti-war movement; and the civil rights movement was led by clergy, both black and white. Spiritual people led the anti-colonial movement for Indian independence and the anti-slavery movement both here and in England. It is through a spiritual understanding that our appreciation for life, for all of life, deepens. A natural result of this understanding is not passivity, but a heightened intolerance for cruelty and abuse and a greater courage in the pursuit of justice.

I welcome your comments.