Monday, July 30, 2007

#14. Person as Process

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This is the third of three blog postings dealing with the Mystery of Person in light of the neurological perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism.

The two previous postings dealt with the neurological understanding of consciousness as the cognitive extension of prehension (#12) and as cognized environment (#13).

That first post (#12) is about how the human spirit is both free and also rooted in the Earth and the cosmic process; it's relatively easy to understand, despite the jargon. The second (#13) isn't so easy: the idea is that we're not just part of the universe but in fact are "the universe become conscious of itself." It's an unfamiliar concept for most of us.

This third posting on the Mystery of Person is even more challenging; it's about how neurological studies help us to understand ourselves as a process. We know we're not just an object or thing, but process? We've really got to work at this one!


From one point of view, the idea is clear enough. If we are the universe internalized ("cognized"), and the universe is a dynamic (not static) process, then logically we, too, must be a dynamic process.

But logic isn't everything.

And yet that logic does confirm one of our fundamental intuitions (gut feelings), that persons really are something more than mere objects or things.

It's that "more" that this posting is about.


In some sense, of course, we are things. We're not a vacuum or emptiness. We're something, but we're not just some thing. Not a thing, but not nothing.

Language is inadequate because we're not yet used to thinking in dynamic or evolutionary terms; the static worldview has prevailed for so many centuries in western culture. But as the developmental perspectives coming from contemporary science filter down to the popular level, we can expect to be able to express these ideas about ourselves more readily.

We really do live in a tremendously transitional time. In terms of our understanding of the world and of the place of humanity within it, words such as the Great Turning, Immense Transition and the Second Axial Period are being used to describe our time in human history.

And among the many adjustments we're being called to make in our perceptions of things, it may be that coming to see ourselves as process may be the biggest adjustment of all.


One of the 20th century's great geniuses, Buckminster Fuller, saw it. He entitled one of his books I Seem to Be a Verb (Bantam Books, 1970). And it's already more than fifty years since the famous British biologist Julian Huxley made his now well-known statement that humanity is "the universe become conscious of itself."

But even back in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, working in the context of Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy, described the human soul as "that which can become all things." It was his way of distinguishing human souls from the souls (life-principle) of animals.

Of course he didn't have the modern evolutionary perspectives and the findings of neuro-physiology available to him, so his statement is probably a working out of a profound intuitive perception on his part. 

But he was saying something very much like what neuro-science means when it uses terms such as "cognized environment" and "process" to describe the mystery of personal consciousness.

Those neurological perspectives help us to understand just what it means to say that we are one with the universe (that we can "become all things") and that we are the activity of that dynamic process reflecting back on itself at its most complex stage of development (that we can "become all things").


We struggle for words to describe the Mystery of Person.

One frequently used term is subjectivity. We say that a person is not an object but a subject. "Not an it but a thou," in Martin Buber's words.

Another frequently used term is interiority. Religious language has included talk about the "interior life" for many centuries.

In our day, the style in which we live our interior life has come to be known as a spirituality, and it appears that our personal spirituality-- the way in which we are religious, how we live our inner life-- depends to a great extent on our inborn personality type. Our style of spirituality seems to depend on the genetic material the universe provides us with when we are called forth from within the cosmic evolutionary process. I hope to share some thoughts along those lines in future posts.

Words like reflection, reflexive and reflective also have been commonly used in western culture to describe the intuitive insight that human consciousness is somehow the world "convoluted" or "doubled back" on itself. It's the "somehow" of that process which neurophysiology helps us understand better.

As I spelled out in some detail in the previous posting (#13 on Cognized Environment), the basic idea about the reflexive nature of consciousness is that "any sense data that enters the brain is immediately compared with already-there previously-stored sense data." New information is compared with already-present information.

That's our brain's reflective ability. It emerged originally as an adaptive evolutionary mechanism: in-coming data is processed in terms of how it fits with previous information already stored in the brain, so that threatening things in the environment can be avoided and beneficial things can be pursued.

It's this activity of the brain which accounts for the external world (what neurology calls the "operational environment") becoming internalized (become "cognized"). And it's the neurological mechanism which, although obviously unknown to Aquinas, is what he was trying to describe by saying that the soul "can become all things."

In neurological jargon, the soul (personal consciousness or neuro-gnosis) is the "informational content" of the media of nerve cells and networks of neural structures in which this information is "coded" and by way of which it gets modified via our life experience.

"Coding" refers to the fact that awareness is the "informational content" of the neurological structures; it's "coded" into those structures in the same way that information about gender, body build and hair color, for example, is coded in our DNA structures.

The difference between DNA and brain structures helps us to be more clear about the second and third levels of complexity in the cosmic process. DNA is essentially a very large molecule made of millions of atoms; it is located inside the nucleus of each living cell and its activity accounts for the emergence of self-transforming life-forms. In contrast, the human brain is made of millions of cells-- as many cells as there are stars in our galaxy-- and the activity of its incredibly complicated structure is what accounts for the emergence at the third level of complexity of personal consciousness.

So in terms of what's going on in the brain, it may be that information processing isn't such a bad way to understand the mystery of person.


A problem is that we tend to think of knowledge or consciousness as something we have, not as something which we are. But that's still thinking in terms of the old static worldview. In the perspectives of a dynamic evolutionary universe, being a person isn't something that we are so much as something which we do.

Another problem is that it may seem that this is, once again, a reduction of the mystery of person to the level of matter. But it's not. 

We need to keep in mind that we're not talking here about rocks or clouds but living matter at the most complex organizational level we know of in the entire universe. If the activity of DNA inside cells can produce whales and roses, we can expect that the activity of the millions of cells operating together inside our brain produces something more.

So maybe "information processing" is a very good way of understanding the mystery we are.


It's often said that we live in an "Information Age." Adding information or information processing to the list of words-- such as mind, soul, spirit, awareness-- we use to name personal consciousness might in fact be a breakthrough. It provides us with a new and better way to appreciate just what we mean by a human person. For the first time in humanity's cultural development, and with thanks especially to contemporary neurological studies, we can value persons in a way that wasn't part of our thinking in past ages.

We may be coming into the Age of the Person.

It sounds like hype, but it doesn't have to be. It can be a way of saying that for the first time in human history, we're coming to recognize the significance of persons in a cosmic context.

It's surely a big improvement over Aristotle's definition of a human being as a "rational animal" and of Rene Descartes' description of a person as a "thinking reed." We know so much more about the world and thus about ourselves than those earlier thinkers ever could!

Understanding persons in terms of information processing helps us not only to move out of the centuries-old prison of religious and rationalist dualism, it allows us to see ourselves at the very center of the cosmic process.

So even though it's not easy to think of ourselves as information-processing, we may be on to something of great significance. It's here that we can see that the findings of contemporary science begin to converge with the deepest perspectives of our religious traditions.


I started this blog for "sharing thoughts about the convergence of science and religion" back at the end of 2006. It was sparked by media reports of the science-religion controversies. More correctly, it was sparked by my impatience with the naivety of many of those reports.

By far the best of them was the cover essay of US News (15 Oct 06), "Is There Room for the Soul?". It was written by Jay Tolson of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC and included a review of highlights of contemporary consciousness studies. You might like to check out Tolson's article and/or that first blog entry (On Recent Developments in Science and Religion).

In his article, Tolson brings up the problems involved in recognizing that personal consciousness "is not a thing." He emphasizes that this "doesn't mean that consciousness isn't real or that the mind doesn't exist, but only that 'thing' may not be an accurate way to understand it."

He suggests that we can profit from what he calls the wisdom of Buddhism... "where the inner self is correctly understood not as an entity or substance but as a dynamic process." His suggestion is a good example of the convergence of an ancient spiritual perspective with the findings of contemporary neuro-science.

But we don't need to be Buddhists to know that information processing is a good way to understand ourselves. It's something we know from personal experience. We are always learning and changing as a result of what we do and what happens to us.

In neurological jargon, the process is called the Empirical Modification Cycle. It has, as I mentioned in posting #10 (Overview of Biogenetic Structuralism), "a central place in the scientific understanding of our personal and cultural development." I hope to spell out some of those ideas, especially with regard to symbol, ritual and meditation, in future postings.

We need to be careful not to let the neurological jargon, Empirical Modification Cycle, get in the way. A blog reader sent this brief description of what Biogenetic Structuralists mean by it: "physical changes in the brain because of outside events."

That description is a good way to summarize the idea that the information already in the cells and structures of our brain is constantly being modified via our life-experience.

We know that life-experience changes us. Each of us has attended the "school of hard knocks" and we feel good about our successful accomplishments. But what a difference in perspective when we place those experiences, good or bad, and the changes they bring about in us, in the context of the dynamic cosmic process!

One thing we can immediately recognize is that all the problems and challenges we encounter as we live our lives are aspects of the evolution of the universe. Our personal struggles are the cosmic process in action. I put it this way at the end of the previous posting: "Our personal relationships and the products of our creative imagination and technical know-how are not just private activities. They are the cosmic process doing its thing through us."

Understanding ourselves as cosmic process isn't easy. As I said at the beginning of this posting, we've really got to work at it. But it's worth it.

The biogenetic (evolutionary) and neurological perspective provides us a sense of meaning and purpose we just can't have in a static worldview. In the dynamic perspectives of contemporary science, we can see that what we do and what happens to us has cosmic significance.

Just saying that begins to sound like religious language. Meaning, purpose, significance: the religious implications of this scientific view of personal consciousness are immense.

So much to investigate!

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.