What the Meaning of ‘Is’ Is

“It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is,”1 said President Bill Clinton during testimony for his impeachment hearing. It was a statement that echoed around the world and caused much scorn to be heaped upon him. The statement may be typical of legal hair-splitting, but, in the world of Understanding, that statement is absolutely critical. It does all depend on “what the meaning of ‘is’ is!”

The verb ‘to be’ (‘is’) is at the same time both the simplest and most complex concept. It is a verb and so it refers to an action — the action of existing. When I talk about this concept, I like to use the invented verb form: ‘is-ing’. It doesn’t so much refer to the ‘what‘ of a thing (“that is a dog”), but the ‘how‘ of a thing. ‘Being’ refers to how a thing does its is-ing. In Aristotelian terms, it refers to the way the qualities of a thing inhere in it. This is what we consider when we talk about Aristotelian metaphysics (‘metaphysics’ or ‘beyond physics’ does not mean “woo-woo” speculation, but the examination of ‘being’ as such). Are you totally lost yet? I thought so.

There are qualitative differences in the ways different things exist. These differences are not quantifiable — they can’t be expressed in terms of ‘more’ or ‘less.’ In simpler terms, a plant does its ‘is-ing’ in a far different way than a rock does. From inert to living to conscious to self-conscious and beyond are quantum leaps. Each quantum level does its ‘is-ing’ differently from the one prior to it. What’s more, no level can adequately grasp or understand the levels above it. In fact, the greatest minds of our time are gravely concerned about how the next quantum leap will affect humanity. Until recently I assumed that humanity would be both the agent and participant in the next step. In fact, although we may well be the agents who set all this in motion, it may well be thinking machines (artificial intelligence) that move to the next quantum level of existence.1 The movie Lucy may not be quite so far-fetched as we might have thought.

The French paleontologist, geologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin2 in his book, The Phenomenon of Man3 developed this appreciation of the degrees of being by suggesting four stages of cosmological evolution: the (inert) lithosphere, the (living) biosphere, the (aware) noosphere, all leading toward to point of ultimate conversion, which he called the omega point. Perhaps the most significant contribution that Teilhard made though his studies was to take the sciences to task for failing to apply the scientific method to the examination of consciousness itself: consciousness as a subject examining consciousness itself as an object. Significantly, Teilard recognized the discontinuity between the evolutionary spheres: each level, he says, builds to a critical mass, then explodes into a new level — a new level of being — not different from the former level in “amount” of being, but in the “kind” of being it does.

Differences in ways of ‘is-ing’ create barriers between beings. Beings that do their ‘is-ing’ on a higher evolutionary level exercise their existence more fully. They are, in fact, more fully capable of ‘is-ing’ than beings on the other side of the quantum gap. Chimps (so long as they are remain chimps and are not artificially morphed into something else) will never be able to comprehend the way humans do. The fear that grips Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk derives from this: if artificial intelligence — driven by self-improving algorithms — take machines to a level of development as high above human reason as the human is above the chimp . . . or higher . . . we would have about the same chance of understanding the workings of those machines as a chimp trying to grasp calculus.

In philosophical terms, the verb ‘to be’ is analogical. It does not have a simple (‘univocal’) meaning, but it means something quite different depending on what kind of being it’s being used with. A rock does its ‘is-ing’ differently from how a virus does it; a virus does it differently from how a bacterium does it; a bacterium does it differently from how plant does it; a plant does it differently from the way an animal or a human or an artificial superintelligence does it (or will do it). They all exist (or will exist), yet they all exist quite differently from one another. As I mentioned before, the connections between different types of ‘is-ing’ are tenuous at best.

Now, let’s talk about God (however you want to Name God). So-called ‘religious’ people seem to love to talk about God as though they can see the world and everything in it from a God’s-eye view. It’s not hyperbole that the book of the prophet Isaiah says,

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”4

Think about it for minute . . . no, take several minutes. God is utter simplicity. There is neither “otherness” in God, nor is there change, nor space, nor time. There is no ‘before’ and no ‘after’. There just IS. Nothing in the world of our experience comes even close to allowing us to comprehend what that means, because nothing in our world does its ‘is-ing’ in completeness and without time or space. The difference between God’s ‘is-ing’ and ours is infinitely greater than that between a rock and a human person. The only reason that we aren’t immediately aware of God is that there’s too much God for humans to comprehend. God, to human perception, appears like a (literally) blinding light or deafening noise.

I have one thing to say to those who claim that “God wants this” or “God doesn’t want that”: your claims are absurd. Those kinds of statements come from a made-up god created by frightened people to manipulate others to do what they think they should. This god is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is not the God of Moses Who revealed to him His Name — Yahweh — I AM. This is not the God Who raised Jesus from the dead. This is not the God of Mohammed or the Buddha.

In the weeks to come, we will talk more about God. We’ll look at our God language as analogy, for, when we talk about God being ‘One’, or ‘Good’, or ‘Beautiful’, or ‘True’ or ‘Living’ or ‘Loving’, or ‘Creator’, or ‘Person’, or ‘Father’, or ‘Spirit’, we cannot comprehend how these descriptors apply to SomeOne Who does ‘is-ing’ so far removed from anything we have ever experienced. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to assume that our experience of the space-time continuum applies to the God-dimension. It does not. At all. And one of the reasons why so many strange notions permeate our “religious” language can be traced directly back directly to that issue: our perspective is so time-and-space warped that we ask the wrong questions. I guarantee, when you ask the wrong questions, you’re going to get some very weird answers!

So, maybe Bill Clinton was right, after all . . . it really does all depend on what the meaning of ‘is’ is!

1See “The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence” by Tim Urban, February 10, 2015.
2(May 1, 1881 – April 10, 1955) was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist and took part in the discovery of Peking Man. He conceived the idea of the Omega Point (a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which he believed the Universe was evolving) and developed Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of noosphere.
3Le phénomène humain, 1955
4Isaiah 55:8-9.

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