Wednesday, July 4, 2007

#12. The Cognitive Extension of Prehension

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This is the first of three blog postings dealing with the Mystery of Person in light of the neurological perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism. It is intentionally being posted on Independence Day: it's about the neurological basis in the brain and nervous system for human freedom.In contrast to the static worldview of former times, the essence of the modern scientific perspective is that we live in a dynamic world, much bigger, older and more complicated than our ancestors ever dreamed.

The dynamic worldview of modern science allows us to see not only that the physical matter of the Earth has become alive in the form of self-transforming structural systems (plants and animals), but also that a portion of the living world has so increased in complexity, via the development of the vertebrate brain and nervous system, that it has become self-aware. Matter, life and mind are three distinct levels of development in the cosmic process.

Teilhard felt that this new scientific perspective was the biggest development in human history since humans first appeared on Earth; we can expect that anything this big will have a major impact on humanity's religious perspectives. Exploring those perspectives is what my efforts with this blog are all about.

I called the previous entry "The End of Dualism," for example, to make the point that we no longer need to think of ourselves as spirits trapped in bodies, as did Greek thought and those dualistic religious perspectives of western culture based on it. As I said in that posting, the modern evolutionary view "marks the end of philosophical and religious dualism which has influenced every aspect of human life for several thousand years." Thanks to contemporary science, we have a much better understanding of the relationship between mind and matter.

Although we know by personal experience what self-awareness means, we find it extremely difficult to put into words. We are indeed a mystery to ourselves. But contemporary neurological studies, set within a biogenetic (evolutionary) context, offer much help in our understanding of the "mystery which we are."

In this posting and the next I hope to share my understanding of the two closely related but distinct ideas about personal consciousness which in the jargon of Biogenetic Structuralism are referred to as the "cognitive extension of prehension" and the "cognized environment." Both have especially significant religious implications.


To make sure we get off to a good start, we need to keep in mind that the word "matter" means far more today than it did in previous times. Our knowledge of the very small (summed up in Quantum Mechanics), of the very large (summed up in Relativity theory), and of the very old (summed up in Astronomy and Geology), allows us to see that the physical stuff of the universe is something very different from the dead, inert, passive material which for many centuries it was thought to be.

With our dynamic-evolutionary perspective, we can see that the three distinct stages of the material world's development are what is studied respectively by the physical sciences, the biological sciences and the human sciences. But the fact that the findings of the human sciences remain less well known than those of physics and biology, and indeed sometimes are hardly considered authentic science at all, indicates how much we have still to learn.

And of course it is in the "sciences of the mind," those which study the third level of the material world's development, that the implications for humanity's religious understanding are greatest.

But it is the unified perspective-- that matter, life and mind are three stages of the one same cosmic process-- which constitutes the modern scientific worldview.

From an anthropological point of view this unified view is called the "New Cosmology." It is, in fact, a New Story of the World, and one which-- despite religious, ethnic and cultural differences-- all humanity can eventually come to share based on the findings of objective science: plants and animals are the natural result of the evolution of cosmic matter, and human beings are the pinnacle of the development of life on Earth.

This is the new, modern context which we have for understanding the mystery of ourselves as conscious persons.


One of the most interesting things about personal consciousness is that we have so many names for it. In different situations, we use a variety of words-- mind, soul, spirit, person, psyche, self, inner self, consciousness, cognition, awareness, knowledge, understanding, gnosis and episteme-- to name the inner experience of personal consciousness.

Because we see ourselves from so many different points of view, it's sometimes difficult to recognize that all those terms refer, in fact, to the one same thing. We really are a mystery to ourselves in the most profound sense: we can never exhaust understanding ourselves.

But modern science, especially that combination of neurology and cultural anthropology called Biogenetic Structuralism, offers much help along these lines; and this is one of the places where science and religion converge considerably.

As I said above, I see two big ideas especially worth exploring. The first is Biogenetic Structuralism's jargon phrase, "the cognitive extension of prehension." It deals with the fact that due to the cosmic evolutionary process, the matter of the Earth has become not only alive but self-aware.

The second is a closely related but distinct concept: the amazing fact that we human persons are "the matter of the Earth which has become not only alive but self-aware." "Cognized environment" is the jargon phrase for this concept. I'll try to spell out that idea in some detail in my next blog entry, and offer some thoughts about its religious implications in entry #14.

This present posting focuses on "the cognitive extension of prehension."


When I first discovered that the field of Biogenetic Structuralism is what I've called "the parent generation" of research for contemporary neurological studies being done at the University of Pennsylvania by Andrew Newberg and associates, it took me a half-dozen readings of their original text Biogenetic Structuralism [Columbia University Press, 1974]) to make sense of their ideas about the cognitive extension of prehension.

So you might like to look back at posting #10 (Overview of Biogenetic Structuralism) where in the sections on Chapters III and IV I've tried to describe these challenging ideas. As I've said a number of times, they are not easy to understand, but they're not impossible either; they are well-worth whatever time and energy we can give them.

The main idea encapsulated in the phrase "cognitive extension of prehension" is that, thanks to the way the human brain works, we are to some extent free of the affective or emotional ties our primate relatives have to their immediate environment.

The structure and organization of the human brain is such that we have a real, if limited, independence of the brain's limbic system, the part of the brain we share with all vertebrate animals going back to our reptile ancestors. It is this relative freedom from instinctual action and response to things in our immediate surroundings which enables us to imagine possible causes of things not present in the external environment; it allows us to deal with things in their absence, to plan ahead and to make choices. This cognitive ability obviously had great survival value for our earliest human ancestors and accounts for contemporary humanity's predominance among the living things of the Earth.


At first hearing, this idea of the "cognitive extension of prehension" doesn't sound too helpful as an understanding of the mystery of personal consciousness. But in fact it is.

"Prehension" comes from a Latin word which means to seize or grasp; we're familiar with its use in describing the prehensile tail of South American monkeys who use their tails as an additional appendage for wrapping around and holding on to tree branches.

But "prehension" also has a conceptual meaning, as when we say of something which we've previously had a difficult time understanding, "Oh, now I get it". We're saying that we have "grasped" the issue, that we have been able to "wrap our minds around" it. That's what's meant by the cognitive extension (at the human level) of primate prehension.

As I said above, the findings of the human sciences remain less well known than those of the physical and biological sciences, so these words sound strange. But in fact we know what they mean from personal experience.

The main point which the phrase "cognitive extension of prehension" conveys is that human behavior isn't just a matter of instinct, as it is with our primate cousins. We are less stimulus-bound and have a certain amount of autonomy because of the way the structures of our brain are organized. And, obviously, this behavioral freedom from "instinct," limited as it is, is what distinguishes us from our primate cousins and accounts for our characteristically human traits of speech, creativity, technical know-how and imagination.


What's less obvious-- and this is my whole point in this post-- is that this partial independence of the human brain from the vertebrate limbic system is precisely what was meant in earlier times by our spiritual nature.

In the centuries before anything was known about neuro-physiology, it made good sense to say that "humans have a spiritual soul." In the context of the pre-scientific static worldview, talking about the spiritual nature of the soul was a good way of expressing the fact that what distinguishes homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom is our limited but real autonomy from the world around us. Liberty or freedom is the very essence of what we mean by the human spirit.

Thanks to 20th-century scientific studies of the brain, we can understand even better what the freedom of a human person means. And the great advantage of seeing our spiritual aspect from a neurological perspective is that it doesn't separate us from the rest of the living world but situates us within it. Today, we can see more clearly than other generations that personal consciousness doesn't exist apart from the Earth's biological evolution but, rather, that we are an integral part of the evolution of the universe.

And it's this neurological-evolutionary perspective-- that the human spirit is rooted in the Earth-- which I described in posting #11 as marking the end of religious and rationalist dualism.

When we see what the cognitive extension of prehension means, it becomes clear that we neither have to deny as do scientific rationalists that we have a spiritual soul, nor to claim as religious fundamentalists do that only our spiritual side has value.

And this New Cosmology, this New Story of our place in the living world, coming out of 20th century science, takes away nothing of the awe, wonder and astonishment we experience at the mystery of being a person. Indeed, it enhances it tremendously.

And it opens the door to a much more healthy religious understanding of ourselves not as aliens to, but as participants in, the cosmic process.


In the dualistic religious perspectives of pre-scientific times, humanity's main task was to escape from the world. Today, thanks to the modern evolutionary perspective, we can see that we not only belong to the world but also that we have a role to play in it.

The modern scientific worldview doesn't take away human dignity, it restores the age-old religious insight of the value of the human person. It allows us to see that each of us has a cosmic vocation, called by our very existence to make a personal contribution to the evolution of the world.

This is one of the most significant places where religion and science at their best converge: in helping us recover the sense that our personal existence has meaning and purpose.

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.