Quora Answer: What is being?

Oct 18 2014

This is a recap of various answers I have given to other questions which I will provide as a summary here.

Being is a very odd concept that is unique to Indo-European languages. And the fact of the anomalous character of Being within the universe of languages is its predominant characteristic, even though that has not played a role in the development of this concept up till now, because Indo-europeans were last to realize that other languages did not have this concept do to xenaphobia, ethnocentrism, racism, etc. If they noticed at all they took this fact as a sign of their superiority to all other peoples who had different languages and yet another reason to conquer, dominate through violence, or economics, as well as exploit, rape, pillage and exterminate them. Thus Being carries with it a lot of baggage with respect to how Indo-Europeans have comported themselves toward others throughout history. They are perhaps the most destructive people who have ever lived, and now they seem bent on destroying the planet. Thus it behooves us to try to understand the nature of this anomalous concept and try to consider the role it might have played in the history of a people who have always been bent on world domination.

The link as I see it is this. Being gives a fitness advantage to speakers of a language in which it exists because it allows linkages and synergies to be postulated that otherwise might be harder to do without this concept of a substance or sub-stratum common to radically different things, and this affects the ability to build syntheses which affects the ability to create a technological infrastructure. And since the Indo-Europeans have dominated on the basis of their technological infrastructure from the beginning of history it appears that this concept might play a pivotal role in their rise to domination and continued domination on the world stage.

Now if we take this premise as the basis for understanding the meaning of Being we get a very different view of what it might “be” and what it might mean that we would otherwise. It puts Ontology, which is the study of Being in a completely different light that we might have considered if we just studied it within the context of Western Philosophy without recourse to other traditions. The fact that other philosophical traditions, for instance Buddhism, is more sophisticated than that of Western philosophy does not get noticed because Western philosophers don’t bother to read anything outside their own tradition for the most part. And anything they might read outside their tradition gets co-opted into that tradition or orientalized. However, if we look at Western Philosophy from the outside via a genuine attempt to understand other sophisticated intellectual traditions as a standpoint for understanding the world, then we are starting with existence rather than Being, and then it is a very different task to understand the nature of Being that it would be to do so from within the Western tradition in which the absurdity of Being is ubiquitous and pervasive and in which there is no criterion for judging the value of Being because it is the criterion for judging everything else. Even the concept of God who is conceived as the “supreme being”, is subservient to Being itself. Western philosophy is extremely parochial. But to get some perspective on Being we must understand it from the outside, from other more sophisticated intellectual traditions which do not have Being as their main concept, and thus which allow us to get some perspective on Being. When we do that we find that Being is synonymous with illusion, a very potent form of illusion called in Hinduism Maya but called in Buddhism dukkah and in Islam dunya.

Once we have stepped outside the magic circle in which Being dominates and pervades all our thoughts we can begin to get some perspective on this concept and attempt to understand it better. So that when we come back into Western philosophy it is easier to understand how the tradition itself has struggled with this concept that is embedded in the language as their only tool for thinking the deepest thoughts. We are still locked in this encounter with Being from within our tradition, and probably the most important thing we can do is to attempt to engage in the struggle to understand Being because it affects every aspect of the world and our selves as we find ourselves within our world, and it pervades our worldview in ways that are difficult to imagine less well understand. Seen from the outside we are continually walking around in an extreme illusion that distorts everything we do, and this has profound effects that play themselves out on the world stage as we destroy other worlds and challenge other world-views that have their own illusions but not this extremely deep type of viral illusion that we find ourselves infected with from the very beginning and never manage to shake in our whole lives.

So what is Being? It is almost impossible to say because it is an extremely deep absurdity that we don’t notice because it is the air or water of our worldview in which we fly or swim and do not notice it. It is a kind of ether that is continually at play affecting our every thought and move, our very Being and our Becoming. The fact is that the only way to understand being is to attempt to come to the surface between Being and what others see which is existence. But that is very difficult because what we discover is that Being itself is striated into kinds and it is necessary to go up the ladder or stairway to nowhere that appears as the kinds of Being in order to try to get to the surface outside of Being, i.e. in existence. it is as if we were wandering around the Winchester House in San Jose, CA, and we found the stair way to nowhere that exists there, and we started going up those stairs. It appears that those steps end up just hitting the ceiling and that there is really no where to go up those stairs. But in fact when we actually take the last step we find ourselves having cross the threshold into existence, because existence is at the core of Being. Those stairs within our worldview are called the Meta-levels of Being which define different kinds of Being that are emergently different from each other. They were rediscovered by Continental Philosophy in the last century, but have always existed within our worldview as an inner possibility.

The way we take those stairs is to consider the meaning of seemingly meaningless repetitions of the term Being. For the most part we live on the suface of Being but what happens when we consider instead the Being of Being, what is that. Aristotle says Being qua Being when he wants to point to the essence of Being itself. What is the Being of Being? Well it turns out that there is a distinction within Being that allows us to understand that, and that is the distinction between the kind of Being that Parmenides talks about which is static (cf. Zeno), and the dynamic flowing type of Being that Heraclitus discusses which is known as Becoming. Interestingly when we go up a meta-level of Being we move from static Being to dynamic Becoming. Lets call this the difference between Pure and Process Being. When we look at our tradition we find that Heidegger makes this distinction in Being and Time between present-at-hand and ready-to-hand modes of being-in-the-world of Dasein. Since Heidegger there have been many popularizes of the idea that Being is not just static and eternal but dynamic and affected by time. In fact just as Space and Time can be seen to form a continuum in modern physics so too Being and Becoming can be seen as a corresponding continuum of an even higher level of abstraction than spacetime. Plato talks about this distinction between Being and Becoming and how what we really need is the idea of change and changelessness at the same time.

But once we admit that Being is not a homogeneous plenum as it has been conceived for most of the history of philosophy then we admit the possibility that there are different kinds of Being which are somewhat like the various phases of matter. So for instance we have solids, and liquids which are remarkably similar to Pure and Process Being. And by analogy there must be something like a gas, and the way that we get to that new emergent level of Being is to ask what is the Being of the Becoming of Being. By this route we get to what Plato in the Timeous called the Third Kind of Being. This of course is like the close encounter of the Third Kind but with something that is not alien but something that is so ubiquitous and normal that we take it for granted and never think about how strange it is. However, when we start to think about the third kind of Being, which we might call Hyper Being, we begin to see that Being is in fact very strange. Heidegger discovered it and called it -B-e-i-n-g- (crossed out), and Derrida took it up and called it Differance which means differing and deferring. Merleau-Ponty independently discovered it and called it the Hyper-dialectic between Being (as process defined by Heidegger) and Nothingness (as defined by Sartre). The fact that it is now known that Plato knew about it (cf Sallis Chorology) means that it is a part of our tradition that was there from almost the beginning and had gotten lost, but then was rediscovered when the idea that there were different kinds of Being surfaced in Continental Philosophy.  The reason it got lost within the tradition is that it is much harder to think than the idea that there is moving and transforming Being. There is in fact a kind of Being that is continually slip-sliding (Paul Simon) away, which like quicksilver cannot be held on to, and as you grasp it it transforms or vanishes (like the Old Man in the Sea when Menelaus grabs him or Theitis when Peleus grabs her). In fact we see that this kind of Being is very much the kind of Being that the continually transforming gods seem to have. But interestingly enough it is also the kind of Being that writing which is the basis for the preservation of our culture also has according to Derrida. He says that there is a prejudice against writing and for speech in our culture, and that this prejudice that suppresses writing gives writing the nature of Hyper Being, and this is intensified when writing becomes animated as it does in computer programming so that software becomes the first cultural artifact with this kind of Being.

Once we know that we are locked into a regress then we can begin to think about what is the next higher level of Being, which we will call Wild Being after Merleau-Ponty who realized that Hyper Being must have an opposite, but also realized that it was very difficult to think about because it is the Being of the Becoming of the Being of Becoming. It is Gregory Bateson in Steps to the Ecology of Mind that introduces us to the idea of the Meta-levels of Learning and who opens up the way to try to understand what learning is at meta-level 4. Merelau-Ponty was hit by a car before he could finish his work The Visible and the Invisible and so Wild Being did not have the philosophical impact it might have had if he had finished the book. But there were philosophers like Deleuze who were ready to explore this higher level of Being, and he concentrate on attempting to produce images of what a philosophy at this metalevel might be like. But this meta-level of Being is almost impossible to think. But like most things that are rare if we can lay our hands on it then it is very valuable because it gives us a perspective on the lower kinds of Being we would not have otherwise. And it is our only way forward to the final kind of being which is called Ultra Being which is a singularity of Being in existence.

What is important to us here is that if we keep going up this stairway to nowhere we hit a ceiling which is a singularity where Being comes to an end in existence. but if we think about the nature of that Existence we realize that we can consider existence under the interpretation of emptiness as do the Buddhists or under the interpretation of Void as do the Taoists, and thus what appears to be a singularity and a dead end is actually a release into the freedom of a nondual realm in which illusion vanishes. Illusion vanishes because the dualities on which illusion is based evaporate. Once we breakthrough into non-dual existence then we finally get some perspective on Being that is not possible otherwise. There we discover the existence that has been suppressed in our own tradition but which is the natural state of things in other non-indo-european languages. It is only at that point that we can actually perceive the meaning of Being vis a vis Existence. What we discover in that case is that actually Being has no meaning because all meaning flows from Existence. What there is in Being is significance, relevance, innuendo  but not real meaning.

My analogy for this is the Geode theory of meaning. Geodes are bubbles in sediment that waters run through and over eons the heavy metals and other materials crystalize out filling the bubble and creating beautiful crystaline structures within the bubble at its center which ultimately is empty. Being is like this bubble. There is originally a void in existence, the bubble in the sediment. But then the substance within the water precipitates out as crystaline substance within that void creating an empty center. But the sediment in that bubble that precipitates out forms layers. Outermost the layer looks like an ordinary rock. But then if we look beyond that rock we see that the rock is built up over time and has a certain dynamic that lays down the substance layer by layer within the bubble so as to create different sedimentations some of which become crystallization’s. The difference between the sedimentations and the cystalizations is in the nature of the minerals that are precipitated out given what is in the water at that specific location over eons. However, this remains hidden to us until we are so bold as to split open the Geode. At that point there is what we can call an expansion of the being-in-the-world of our projection to encompass the crystalline structure that has been created at the center of the Geode. When we cut it open it is revealed to us and we revel in the beauty of what nature can create hidden away within the earth. But as we open up more and more Geodes we start to realize that we are running out of geodes and thus there is a natural contraction of the geodes as a possibility for revelation within the world. Like other resources the geodes are finite and when we have exploited all of them for our own pleasure and amazement there will soon be no more to open and that wonderment will vanish from our experience. And then that brings us back to the singularity of the unopened Geode itself. We begin to think in a deep ecological fashion that we need to preserve unopened geodes because that is a pristine aspect of nature untrammeled by our exploitative natures. And eventually there is perhaps one geode preserved unopened which is a singularity to signify the original nature of all geodes as they were in the earth a mystery worth preserving, just existing without being exploited and having a value in itself beyond the value we confer though use of natural resources. Perhaps this is a contrived example but what it tires to show is that the meaning actually comes from the center of the geode, from its emptiness, that is enclosed within it. And this is true for everything  Meaning comes out of nondual existence, not out of the substantiveness of Being in all its kinds and phenomenological layers. The actual meaning of the Geode comes out of its unseen structure when it is unopened, out of its possible marvel, which as not been realized because it has not been opened. Meaning is deep ecological in nature, including our own. When we open up the geode then we get significance, we get relevance, we get reference as we compare this geode to all others and to other things. And the same thing is true of Being.

Being itself is like a geode. We mostly see the surface of it which is Pure Being. But occasionally our attention is drawn to its Becoming the fact that it is actually entangled with time. But seldom do we think of the fact that there is a deeper level which has to do with the opening up of Being, to see the inner structures that are continually transforming inside as difference of differing and deferring within itself with itself. It is this that produces the discontinuous and emergent transformation of Being within our tradition. It is this which is the basis for innovation and creativity of design within our culture. It is this which grounds the continual self-transformation of our technological infrastructure. But of course the expansion of being-in-the-world that gives us continually new affordances within our world, is matched by the contraction of being-in-the-world as we find  that the resources to exploit are running out like Helium which is a rare resource which we have wasted blowing up balloons for parties. We are heading toward a severe restriction of our being-in-the-world after we have wasted all the natural resources of our planet. Ultimately the illusion that drives us to exploit everything without end without cease until it is exhausted is just another existent within the world of many other finite existants. Our sickness is just one more sickness of the self that exists within the world. The only real difference is that this sickness is bent on destroying not just the planet but ourselves. It is what Freud called Thanatos the drive toward death. It is just one of many other drives that drive us unconsciously toward our own self destruction, like many other addictions. But this addiction is the one that is the ultimate terrorism because it threatens to take everyone else with us when we go.

The ultimate meaning of Being is the drive toward self-and planetary destruction that we are oblivious to but which is taking us toward planetary destruction  and which we cannot stop because it is within ourselves. When nothing is  left, when the emptiness is clearly all that exists then the meaning will be clear of the nature of this drive that encompasses us, encompasses all of us of what ever species we hale on this unique planet where life now abounds. It will probably still abound once we have destroyed ourselves by uncontrolled and overreaching hubris, but it will probably be only insect life or some other species that is more hardy and more diverse and more numerous than ourselves.

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