Friday, June 29, 2007

#11. The End of Dualism

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The first chapter of the "definitive" 1990 book on Biogenetic Structuralism, Brain, Symbol & Experience (Columbia University Press reprint, 1993) starts with a quote from Teilhard de Chardin's The Future of Man (Harper & Row, 1964).

Teilhard states what he calls a "neo-anthropo-centric" view: we humans "are the head (Terrestrial) of a Universe that is in the process of psychic transformation. We can rightfully considered ourselves," he says, "the fruit of millions of years of psycho-genesis."

This scientific view marks the end of philosophical and religious dualism which has influenced every aspect of human life for several thousand years.

"Dualism" refers to the division of reality into matter and spirit, and to the separation of human beings into body and soul. Many think it is the very essence of a religious view of the world to hold that we have a spiritual soul which lives forever and a material body which dies and decays into dust.

While no one would deny that mind and body are two distinct aspects of our reality, or at least two distinct ways of describing what we are, we need not hold to a dualistic view that one part has an independent and superior existence to the other.

Over the last few centuries it has been gradually recognized that the dualistic view is not only not the essence of religion but that it is an inadequate understanding of human nature and a disastrously harmful view of the world. It allows for exploitation of the Earth and the suppression of its peoples. Global warming, for example, as well as the patriarchal oppression of women and the glorification of war, are direct consequences of matter-spirit dualism.

Religious fundamentalists reject evolution precisely because they think it negates matter-spirit dualism and so denies both human dignity and the very existence of a creative source to the world. While the evolutionary perspective does indeed negate body-soul (or matter-spirit) dualism, its understanding of matter (or body) and spirit (or mind, soul, psyche) is different from the long-held views which western culture had inherited from the world of the Greeks and Romans. We've learned a lot since the time of Plato. Thanks to contemporary science, we don't need to depend anymore on the Greco-Roman understanding of mind and matter.

One of the great values of modern science is that, far from denying human dignity, it enhances it. It allows us to see ourselves as nothing less than "the universe become conscious of itself," and it allows for a much more integral understanding of the relationship between the physical world and its creative source.

The efforts of the Biogenetic Structuralists help greatly in our understanding of the human place in the physical universe. In this blog entry I hope to spell out my understanding of the neurological perspectives on the human person which Biogenetic Structuralism opens up for us.


We know that the universe is billions of years old, that it is filled with millions of galaxies and stars, and that planets are made from the chemical elements produced in the hearts of stars. Chemical compounds, such as water, amino acids and proteins need the cooler temperatures of planets. Along with rocks, oceans and clouds, the Earth's living things-- from amoebas to primates-- are made of the same chemical compounds. We're made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe, literally star dust; and one of the major chemicals in our bodies, the simplest of the elements, hydrogen, goes all the way back to the Big Bang.

A wonderful description of the human body as a manifestation of cosmic history can be found on page 40 of Mary Conrow Coelho's book, Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood (Wyndham Hall, 2002).


Just as the atoms and molecules of chemical elements and compounds are made by the complex joining of subatomic particles, so living things are made by the complex joining of atoms and molecules. What makes a living thing different from the chemicals which compose it is that an animal or plant is a structural system: it is a self-regulating and self-transforming system that preserves its original identity while changing. 

That's what "structuralism" means. A tree in our backyard or a bird sitting in its branches are good examples: we are so used to such structural systems that we seldom recognize what a miraculous thing a living plant or animal is.

The idea of a structural system is Biogenetic Structuralism's basic starting point. What makes this scientific perspective "biogenetic," and thus different from the earlier form of structuralism in the field of anthropology, is its dynamic (evolutionary) emphasis and its application of that developmental view both to the human central nervous system and to human cultural systems.

Cosmic evolution, neurophysiology and culture! That's quite an all-inclusive picture. Biogenetic Structuralists want to maintain a non-dualistic vision in their scientific account of consciousness. And because, as Teilhard says, the human mind is "the fruit of millions of years of psycho-genesis," they want to "leave out nothing" in seeking to "understand understanding." They want to take into account the entire evolutionary history of the universe as well as what neurological science has learned about the human brain.

For this reason, neuro-physiological information about the structural arrangements and functions of the brain and nervous system, gathered by scientists over more than a century of research, has a central place in the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective. Little of this scientific knowledge has filtered down to the popular level, so it's unfamiliar and difficult for most of us. In my blog entry #10, Overview of Biogenetic Structuralism, I offered a brief introduction to it. Here's a quick review of the more relevant points:


In the brains of mammals there are specific sites which connect with the senses. These brain sites provide the animal with incoming information about the external world. This information, which Biogenetic Structuralists like to call by its Greek name, gnosis (knowledge or awareness), has survival value for individuals and species.

In the more advanced mammals called "primates," these brain sites have more complex areas associated with them, but these "association areas," as they are called, function more or less separately from one another. They store gnosis, information about the external world, so it can be compared with further data coming in from the senses. Some of the gnosis stored in the association areas has a genetic basis, the animal's DNA inherited from its ancestors. This in-born awareness is the result of natural selection, the biological phase on Earth of the cosmic evolutionary process.

The survival value of a primate's stored gnosis results from the association areas being connected, via physical and electro-chemical linkages, to the brain's primitive limbic system, which is an inheritance in animals from the much earlier reptilian brain.

The point of this connection with the ancient limbic system is that when in-coming data is compared with gnosis already in the association areas (whether inborn or acquired via life-experience), the comparison process has an affective or emotional component. It is a feeling-response which allows the incoming data to be re-cognized as negative (life-threatening and to be avoided) or positive (life-enhancing and thus may be approached or pursued). This information processing, an obvious and significant survival mechanism, is referred to as "prehension."

Pre-human primate brains have four main association areas, each linked separately to one of the senses. The human brain has an additional association area and connections between the association areas. It is these "cross-modal" connections, as they're called, which allows human learning to be to some extent independent of the affect or emotion-bound limbic system inherited from our reptile ancestors.

It may not seem like much of a difference, but this relative independence of the feeling-response coming from the reptilian brain is the basis for our specifically human abilities such as cognition and conceptualization.

Prehension in primates involves seeing similarities and connections between things in their environment and recognizing them as belonging to specific groups (such as possible predators or potential mates).

The "cognitive extension of prehension" means that we humans can compare, classify and group things even when they are not present in our external environment. We can "prehend" things in their absence and so we can plan ahead. This unique ability obviously has high survival value and it is what accounts for our characteristically human traits such as speech, imagination, creativity and technology.


The concept of the "cognitive extension of prehension" offers a non-dualistic and scientific account of consciousness. It is the essence of Biogenetic Structuralism's "understanding of understanding" and it helps us to understand how we humans can be, in Teilhard words, "the fruit of millions of years of psycho-genesis."

A main point in the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective is that our inborn neuro-gnostic structures are made up not of some non-material 'substance' but of the links and networks of the brain's matter, which are themselves based on genetically determined neural structures.

Whether we call it spirit, mind, knowledge, gnosis, understanding, psyche, cognition, consciousness, personal experience, or whatever, our specifically human cognitive ability-- the ability to imagine possible causes of things not present in the external environment-- accounts for the human experience of our having (or being) an inner "cognized" environment. That inner "cognized" environment is what we call our "person."

And understanding something of it in neurological terms takes away nothing of it as the mystery which we experience ourselves to be, any more than our understanding the processes of nutrition and digestion take away from the mystery of physical growth. I mean "mystery," of course, not in the sense of something we can not understand, but in the sense of an inner experience that is so rich and full that we can never exhaust our understanding of it. We experience the mystery of our inner self in awe and wonder and astonishment.

So it's easy enough to see why Plato and the early Greeks attributed our inner experience of cognition to a non-physical or "spiritual" substance; they lived in a static cultural world and knew nothing about biological evolution or neuro-physiology. It's also easy to see why the rationalism of early science would deny its reality. Both Greek thought and early science shared the same static worldview. They didn't know anything about neuro-physiology. For many centuries, it was thought that the "seat of the soul" was in the abdomen.

And they certainly knew nothing about the universe as an evolutionary process. Thanks to modern science we now can see that our minds no less than our bodies are the result of the cosmic evolutionary process; via the emergence of life on earth and the formation of the solar system and galaxy, we go back all the way to the Big Bang and the initial creation of the world.

This is why I call these perspectives "the end of dualism." We know so much more than Plato and the early Greeks and the early Church fathers who had to use Greek thought patterns to express their religious insights. Today, we don't need to use body-soul dualism to account for the mystery of personal consciousness.

And we don't need to explain away the value of matter by attributing consciousness to a non-material substance. Thanks to the evolutionary and neurological perspectives of contemporary science, we can see today that neither "mind" nor "matter" are what they had been considered to be for many centuries. The dualistic understanding of "matter" is no less outmoded than is the dualistic understanding of "spirit."

So the end of dualism opens the way for a far richer and more life-giving understanding of the meaning of mind and matter-- soul and body-- than was formerly available. Far more, not less than our ancestors of recent centuries, the contemporary understanding of ourselves as conscious persons in an evolutionary cosmos is a tremendous source of religious wonder, awe and astonishment.

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.