Wednesday, June 6, 2007

#8. Background to Biogenetic Structuralism

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This blog entry is intended to provide a background or introduction to the inter-disciplinary (anthropology and neurology) perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism, views which I have found especially meaningful in terms of the contemporary convergence of science and religion.

I plan to follow it up with an overview of the basic ideas found in these creative scientists' initial 1974 book, and then to spell out some specific points which I find especially significant, such as the centrality of personal consciousness and our participatory role in the cosmic process.

The "first generation" Biogenetic Structuralist literature includes three books and numerous (and, unfortunately, jargon-filled) academic articles: the ideas are not only unfamiliar but difficult to deal with. In any case, its origins are found in the coming together of cultural anthropology and neurology in the early 1970s, and these research scientists consider the third of their three books to be its "definitive" expression: Brain, Symbol and Experience, by Charles D. Laughlin, Jr., John McManus and Eugene G. d'Aquili (Columbia U. Press reprint, 1993).

That book begins by facing squarely the fact that modern science has been damaged almost from its beginnings by its positivist-rationalist slant. They don't explicitly blame the "crisis" of science on its negative reaction to religious dualism; they only note contemporary science's lack of self-understanding, and they point out that its healing will come from not from the "hard" but from the human sciences.

As a perspective in academic anthropology, structuralism is based on the (roughly 1940s) work on South American rain-forest cultures by Claude Levi-Strauss, which focuses on relationships between elements of a social system. Levi-Strauss stressed that the components of such systems tend to occur in binary (complementary, not exclusive) pairs. 

The second generation researchers trace this fact to the functions of the brain and nervous system and use it to talk about, among other things, the nature of religious beliefs. (Complicated stuff!)

Levi-Strauss' structuralism was semiotic (synchronic). In contrast, biogenetic structuralism stresses the evolutionary (diachronic) perspective, and does so in terms of phylo- and onto-genesis (i.e., the evolution of biological groups and the development of individuals within those groups) as well as of the development of social-cultural systems.

Over the years, I've found it helpful to use Greek terms to talk about the material world, humanity and divinity: the meanings of cosmos, anthropos and theos are clear enough and yet relatively free of the conventional emotional connotations which the English words tend to evoke. The Immense Transition we are currently experiencing involves a significant change in our understanding of all three of these basic aspects of our existence.

Using the Greek terms, biogenetic structuralism can be described, in contrast to semiotic (non-evolutionary) structuralism, as empirical science dealing with a non-dual anthropos in a dynamic cosmos

Although its main focus is anthropos, it also includes the third aspect of the Immense Transition, theos, and there it makes use of jargon from quantum physics and David Bohm's Implicate Order, such as the Plenum, Void and the Akashic Field.

So, while it is empirical science, Biogenetic Structuralism seems to be totally congruent with humanity's classical mystical traditions (which typically emerged, both Western and Asian, in a static cultural context), and also with the intrinsically dynamic sophianic perspectives which remain a buried treasure at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Among other things, Biogenetic Structuralism makes clear the importance of seeing the cosmic process from "top down" rather than from the conventional "bottom up" view of religious dualism and scientific positivism.

A main idea in the "top down" view is that evolutionary complexity produces newness. It recognizes three main levels to the cosmic process: sub-atomic particles producing atoms and molecules, chemicals producing self-regulating systems (living things: plants and animals), and brain cells producing neuro-gnosis (primate and human awareness).

While it doesn't hesitate to talk of the "mystery that we are," Biogenetic Structuralism does not, of course (or not yet), deal with what would seem to be the obvious fourth level to the evolutionary process: a unity-in-diversity of persons. That is: while it is not religion or theology looking at, or incorporating science into its perspectives, the Biogenetic Structuralist viewpoint does seem to be congruent with Jung's understanding of the three-dimensional "incarnation of the Self" and Bulgakov's "actualization of divine potentialities." These are some of the main ideas about the convergence of science and religion I hope to spell out in future posts.


With regard to the cosmic process at the human level, Biogenetic Structuralism sees three stages to personal (ontogenetic) development: received (DNA-based) gnosis, ego experience, and trans-ego (contemplative) experience.

It understands ego-development (Jungian "individuation") in terms of the neuro-gnostic self adapting to its external environment for survival by assimilation and accommodation, and it understands trans-ego development ("advanced individuation") as the neuro-gnostic self adapting to the cosmic-ontogenetic process itself. That is, it sees the same process operative at both levels, but it is the process (rather than the external environment) that is its focus at the contemplative level (and which is seen as a kind of "ceiling" to the transformation process).

In response to positivist views, Biogenetic Structuralism offers as evidence for this deep trans-personal human experience the cross-cultural global phenomena of shamanism, symbol, myth and ritual.

I find Biogenetic Structuralism's combination of cultural anthropology and neurology for understanding of ritual and symbol to be extremely enlightening but also quite challenging. It recognizes ritual as a mean of enculturation: the incorporation of individuals into a cultural cosmology, which is fairly easy to understand. Far more challenging is its understanding of symbol in ritual: Biogenetic Structuralism sees the symbol-process as nothing less than the essential way the mind-brain works to produce personal transformation.

In neurological jargon: symbol is "a bit entrained to the whole," evoking what the whole brain already knows, and which, because it is not necessarily isomorphic with the operational environment stimulus, activates the cognitive imperative-- the fundamental drive (urge or impetus) of the brain and nervous system (arising from the cosmic process itself)-- to complete the stimulus-meaning-response cycle for its maintenance and development.

Meditation practice is understood similarly. While ritual can be either calming or exciting, and meditation is usually quieting, in terms of neurological activity both processes in their extreme extensions spill over into their opposite. It is when both processes occur together that unitary ("unitive" and, also, near-death) experience happens: no time, no space, no separation, "nothing" becomes the pleromic no-thing, "nowhere" becomes now-here, the "alone" becomes all-one.


I find the third section of the "definitive" Brain, Symbol and Experience, to be the most fascinating part of the book. It's called Consciousness and the Limits of Experience. Its four chapters are:
9. Empirical Ego, Consciousness and Context
10. Dreaming, the Shaman's Journey, and Polyphasic Consciousness
11. Mature Contemplation
12. Conclusion: Neural Organization and Epistemic Process

Chapters 10 and 12, dealing with the shamanic and cosmic nature of consciousness, are especially stimulating. In terms of my own story, there's lots of work for me to do here and I hope eventually to share some of it with readers.

With regard to the convergence of science and religion, what I find most fascinating has to do with an idea which even the New Cosmology is (somewhat understandably) reluctant to deal with: what I've called, above, the "fourth level of the evolutionary process." If I'm understanding the neurological data correctly-- about the functioning of the brain's neocortical lobes resulting in our need for endings as well as beginnings-- it would seem that our hope for a final outcome to the cosmic process is generated by the cosmic process itself.

If so, then from a Biogenetic Structuralism perspective, it's not at all unreasonable to see cosmic evolution not only as creative and participatory but also, in Bruno Barnhart's words, as "rooted in divine sophia who bears the creation toward its fulfillment in a koinonia of persons and eucharistic Omega."

Spelling out ideas like that, as simply and clearly as I can, is what this project is all about.


Tim K said...

Wow. having struggled through some of Loughlin's own writings for the past few hours, I'm thrilled to have stumbled upon this blog post. Thanks for clarifying and illuminating this very interesting field!

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.