Thursday, August 30, 2007

#17. What Is the Universe Doing?

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"Always remember that you're unique. Just like everyone else."

I found that saying recently in a list labeled "Zen Sarcasm." But it's more than just a wisecrack. It's a good summary of one of the most significant-- and easily overlooked-- ideas in the contemporary convergence of science and religion. I especially like it because it lets us step back a bit and take the broad view.


The immense transition which global humanity is currently experiencing is a great turning from the static worldview of former centuries to the dynamic-evolutionary perspectives of contemporary science.

Thanks to this New Cosmology, we are coming to recognize that the world has been developing for fourteen billion years, and that life on the Earth represents a second level of complexity in the cosmic process. Most significantly, we recognize that we ourselves have emerged at the third level of cosmic complexity.

For me, the findings of contemporary neurological studies and their background in Biogenetic Structuralism are an especially satisfying part of this New Science Story. Thanks to it, we can see as never before that human consciousness is at the very center of the cosmic process, and that personal self-awareness is what the evolution of the universe is all about. We can see that the human spirit is rooted in the Earth and the cosmic process, and that each of us is nothing less than the universe become conscious of itself, internalized in a unique way in each individual human being.

Such a radical change in human self-understanding cannot but have a major impact on global humanity's religious perspectives.


As I mentioned in the previous post (#16, Our Own Inner World), the fascinating fact that we each have our own inner world is something we experience all the time, although we rarely give much thought to it.

It may be that, when we get hints of it, we push it back into the depths of our un-consciousness precisely because it's such a profound thought. 

We have a tough time handling heavy ideas, and certainly we don't get much help from contemporary society in thinking about things like the meaning of life and purpose of our existence.

One of the best ways I've found to make sense of these kinds of thoughts is to ask a question, one we often ask in everyday life: "What's going on? What's happening?"

In this case, we can ask it about the universe itself: "What's going on with the universe? What's the universe been up to, over the last several million years?"

The question sounds strange because it's the kind of question which simply would never come up in a static worldview. There, the universe was not thought to be doing anything. Only in the dynamic, evolutionary perspectives provided by contemporary science does it occur to us to ask-- and now with some urgency-- "What is the universe doing?"

The question is what I like to refer to as a cosmos-anthropos issue. And Biogenetic Structuralism's combination of evolutionary biology and neuro-physiology provides us with exactly the right context to think about it.

In the context of the dynamic worldview, we know that at the third level of cosmic complexity the evolutionary process produces personal consciousness, and that each person is the universe doubled back on itself in reflective self-awareness. "Remember that you are unique" is in fact good advice: each of us truly is the universe internalized (cognized) in our own utterly unique way.

So if we ask, in that neurologically-informed evolutionary context, "What's the universe doing?" the answer seems to be fairly clear: it's making persons.

From a slightly different viewpoint, we can also say that it's making multiple versions of itself. By "making persons," the universe is manifesting itself in innumerable unique ways.


Saying that the universe is manifesting itself-- expressing itself, showing itself, revealing itself-- sounds like a religious statement.

And it is. One of the most significant thinkers of our time, Thomas Berry, says that the very first principle of the New Cosmology is that the world itself is the primary revelation: “The universe, the solar system, and planet earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being.”

The traditional Greek term for revelation and manifestation is epiphany. An even more familiar term is incarnation. If we use religious words to express the neurological idea of personal consciousness as an internalized (cognized) world, we can say that what's going on-- what the cosmic process is doing-- is that the mystery of the universe is incarnating itself as human persons.

Such a thought, while incomprehensible both to scientific rationalism and to religious dualism, fits well with the ancient Asian religions. In religious studies, it's called the unitive perspective.

It also fits well with the inner core of the Judeo-Christian tradition, although that thought is much less familiar to most of us.

It's unfamiliar because-- although the unitive (non-dualistic) perspective emerged roughly twenty-five centuries ago in various cultural centers around the world (China, India and the Mediterranean region)-- it was lost to European culture following the Dark Ages. In our time of immense transition it is being recovered once again. It's one of the main things I hope to spell out in future postings.


The objective data of contemporary science-- specifically of the biological sciences and neurophysiology-- seems to lead us quite directly to the unitive perspectives of those age-old religious traditions.

As I see it, the practical task at hand is to understand what it means for everyday life that we humans are the universe become conscious of itself and that each of us is a unique epiphany of the evolutionary universe.

If our views are not grounded-- if they're not realistic in terms of everyday life-- then they're not worth paying attention to. The old dualistic religious perspectives of the last thousand years have been dismissed by large numbers in modern times precisely because they have nothing to say about real life in the real world.


For me, Teilhard's thought is enormously helpful. He is, unquestionably, a major link between old and new in terms of the contemporary convergence of science and religion. I've quoted him many times in previous blog entries, and as I mentioned in posting #11 (End of Dualism), Biogenetic Structuralism's major text, Brain, Symbol & Experience, opens with a quote from his The Future of Man.

One of Teilhard's most significant comments has to do with the idea that each of us has been gathered "from all time and the four corners of space" into a unique inner world of which we are the center.

A second highly significant comment of Teilhard's is that we are called upon "to introduce harmony" into our own inner world. We don't just exist; we have something to do, a role to play, a task to accomplish.


Gathered seems to be a good way to understand in the evolutionary context what, in the pre-evolutionary perspectives, was referred to as creation (understood not as a noun but as a verb).

In the static worldview, the creation of the world was thought to be a one-time event, over and done with a long time ago. The creation of each human being was also seen as a one-time event; but it was the inserting of something which didn't quite belong, something which was in fact alien to the static world. This sense of humanity's alienation from the rest of the universe is the essence of dualism, both religious and rationalist.

In the evolutionary worldview, creation can be better understood as an on-going process, and the creation of each of us is understood to be integral to the entire process. We belong to the universe, so Teilhard's term "gathered" seems especially useful.

Teilhard didn't have available the neurological information we have today; he wrote those words while he was working as a stretcher-bearer in the trenches of the First World War. But they express well the perspectives coming from the findings of contemporary neuro-science.

To describe individual human beings as having been "gathered from all time and the four corners of space into a wondrous knot" is describing the same reality Biogenetic Structuralism refers to as the "cognized environment." It is the mystery that we are: the universe reflecting back on itself at the third level of cosmic complexity and internalized by each of us, each in our own unique way.

These ideas are not easy to keep in mind, so once again you might like to check back to post #12 where I tried to spell out the Biogenetic Structuralist understanding of personal consciousness as a "cognized environment."

To see ourselves as having been gathered by the cosmic process "from all time and the four corners of space" is an empowering vision; it gives us a sense of personal meaning and significance simply not possible in the old static worldview.


Called upon, Teilhard's second especially significant term, is an obvious expression of the old religious idea of vocation.

Not in the specialized sense of belonging to a religious order, however, but in the more basic sense of having a practical skill which we're especially good at and by which we can an earn a living. It also includes the deeper sense that each person has a job to do in life, a task to be fulfilled, a work to be accomplished.

In the dualistic religious context, where human beings really didn't belong to this world, the main task of each individual was to escape from it. Contemporary obituaries are still filled with phrases like "She is in a better place" and "He has gone home."

It's a very different view to say, as Teilhard does, that we are "called upon to introduce harmony into" that world to which we belong. I hope to address this cosmic idea of vocation as seen in an evolutionary context in some detail in my next blog entry.


Here, I want to emphasize the significance, for the convergence of science and religion, of the thought that "what the universe is doing is producing multiple versions of itself."

In a nutshell: it means that, for the universe, persons are of ultimate value.

It's difficult to think of the physical universe as having any values at all in a dualistic context; it's just a static backdrop for human existence in that context. But in an evolutionary context, it's clear that universe is doing something, it's going somewhere.

And what's it doing? As I've said, it's making persons.

We're not used to thinking of ourselves that way. And still less are we used to thinking of the universe as "producing multiple versions of itself in the form of personal consciousness."

But it's clear enough that that's what, in fact, is happening. At the highest level of complexity in the cosmic process, the universe is producing persons.

For the universe, persons matter. Persons count.

The important point I want to emphasize is that this is one place where the convergence of global religious practice and contemporary evolutionary science is especially obvious.

At their best, humanity's age-old religious traditions have always proclaimed the ultimate value of each human being, and they did so not as a theoretical doctrine but as a practical teaching for everyday life. It's known throughout the world as the Golden Rule: we are to care no less for others than we care for ourselves.

There's a familiar gospel story that says that doing something as ordinary as giving a drink of water to a thirsty person-- no matter how insignificant that person's social status is thought to be-- is an act that puts us in touch with what Thomas Berry calls, in the quote above, "that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being.”

Neurological jargon about cognized environment and a gospel story about a cup of cold water may not seem to go together but, once we think about it, we see that they do.

The fact that this radical sense of the central place of "person" is common to the findings of the contemporary science story as well as to a centuries-old religious story is a very significant point in the convergence of science and religion.

It's so basic, it's easy to overlook what the universe is doing.

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.