Monday, September 10, 2007

#18. Called By the Universe

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Each of us has been gathered for all time and from the four corners of space.... We have our own inner world; we are its center and we are called upon to introduce harmony into it.

The words are Teilhard's, from his Writings in Time of War, written in the trenches of France during World War One. They were formulated as scientific concepts a half-century later, thanks to Biogenetic Structuralism's perspectives combining biological evolution, neuro-physiology and cultural anthropology.

I describe them in posting #12, on the Cognitive Extension of Prehension, and #13, on the Cognized Environment. They are central ideas in the contemporary scientific understanding of personal self-awareness, but they are difficult concepts to keep in mind; we're simply not used to thinking of ourselves in terms of our brain's activities.


In my most recent post (#17, What Is the Universe Doing?), I offered some thoughts about how the neurological idea of cognized environment helps us to understand that we have been gathered by the cosmic process; it allows us a better understanding of the traditional religious idea of creation in an evolutionary context.

In this posting I want to share some thoughts about what it means to say that we are called to introduce harmony into our own inner world of which we are the center. The Biogenetic Structuralist concept of the cognitive extension of prehension helps us to have a deeper understanding, in an evolutionary context, of the age-old religious idea of vocation.


In the static worldview of religious dualism, creation is understood as something which happened a long time ago, but in the evolutionary and neurological perspective, we can see that it is a process which has been going on for billions of years.

At the first level of complexity the cosmic process produces the chemical elements and compounds of which the stars and the Earth and our bodies are made, at the second level it produces the Earth's living creatures, and at the third level it doubles back on itself allowing human consciousness to emerge.

In the static worldview, humans didn't really belong to the universe; the world was only a backdrop for our existence, and our main purpose was to escape from it. In contrast, the dynamic perspective allows us to see that we have indeed been "gathered for all time and from the four corners of space," as Teilhard says, so that the resulting "wondrous knot" is nothing less than our personal subjectivity and interiority; each of us is indeed an utterly unique-in-all-the-world expression of the universe become conscious of itself.

In the dynamic view we see that our real lives in the real world have meaning and purpose, that we are called forth by the universe to do something. We have a cosmic vocation.

I see three ideas to sort out with regard to this idea of being called by the universe. One is the fact that we are called. A second is to what we are called. And the third is how we are to go about responding to that calling. Each of these ideas provides us with a greatly enriched religious understanding of our place in the universe.


The fact that we have been called by the universe makes good sense in terms of the neurological concept which Biogenetic Structuralism refers to the cognitive extension of prehension.

But it's not an easy concept to keep in mind, as I said above, so you might like to look back at posting #12. The main idea is that thanks to the structural organization and functioning of the human brain, we have a degree of freedom from the instinctual responses to things in the environment which even our closest animal relatives don't have.

In blog entry #11, on the End of Dualism, I emphasized that the idea of the cognitive extension of prehension allows us to see that the human spirit is rooted in the Earth and the cosmic process, that personal awareness is not something alien to the physical universe.

In this entry I want to emphasize the other side of the concept, that human consciousness is indeed free. While we are rooted in the material world like all other creatures, we also can imagine things not present in the physical environment, we can create tools and complex technology and we can make choices.


It may not be obvious at first that it's our freedom to choose that indicates that we are called by the universe. But we need only think for a moment about our experience of calling in the broadest sense in everyday life to see that freedom and vocation go together.

In our daily life, we don't address non-living objects or plants and animals such as fish or frogs. We only address living things that, because they have a sufficiently complex brain and nervous system, are able to respond.

We even address very young children, once their brain and nervous system have reached a level of development which allows for a response. We also address our family pets, animals who have been in close relationships with humans for many thousands of years, but we never make phone calls even to them.

It's human freedom, thanks to the cognitive extension of prehension, that allows us to see that we are in fact addressed by the universe. We know we are called by the cosmic process because it has given us the ability to respond.


What we are called to is nothing less than participation in the cosmic process. Again, the neurological concept of cognitive extension of prehension lets us see that we are not alienated from the material universe but a part of it.

And, as I described in posting #17, what the universe is doing is making persons. We are called to participate in the cosmic process by contributing our own person to it. We are part of the cosmic process simply by being ourselves.

At first, it sounds almost trite to say that what the universe calls us to do is simply to be ourselves. How can we not be ourselves? And yet we know that it's no small task to be who and what we can be. It is in fact quite a tough job to be responsible for ourselves and to live up to our potential. Teilhard calls this "our work of works."

It's important to see that recognizing that we are called by the universe to take charge of ourselves is a very big step away from the dualistic mentality of former times. There, external authority told us what to do and how to do it. In the contemporary scientific perspective, we see that we are called by the universe to take responsibility for ourselves. 

It is our own inner world, our personal cognized environment, which we are called to contribute to the evolutionary process. And no one can do it for us.


The third idea I proposed above-- how we are to go about responding to our calling from the universe-- is difficult to talk about. We don't yet have proper words for it. But even here, significant help is available, both from contemporary science and from the inner core of traditional religion.

As I've mentioned in two previous postings-- #10, an Overview of Biogenetic Structuralism, and #14, on Person as Process-- we know that our personal consciousness is constantly being transformed via what Biogenetic Structuralism calls the Empirical Modification Cycle. By way of the structural organization and activities of the brain, we incorporate the external world, what Biogenetic Structuralism calls the operational environment, into our own inner world, the cognized environment.

The jargon is a major obstacle to easy understanding, to be sure. But once again, Teilhard is helpful. He has some good images of what it means to make ourselves by incorporating the external world into our unique personal world. TIME magazine, in an article on Teilhard which appeared when his works were first being published in English, referred to the process as "the spiritualization of the universe." It's a good name for it.

Teilhard says: "The labor of seaweed as it concentrates in its tissues the substances dispersed, in infinitesimal quantities, throughout the vast layers of the ocean; the industry of bees as they make honey from the juices scattered in so many flowers-- these are but pale images of the continuous process of elaboration which all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to become spirit."

The TIME article dates from the early 1960s, but it's available on-line. You might like to look at it; its title is "Passionate Indifference."


What I find most fascinating about this evolutionary understanding of cosmic vocation is that it's the working of the universe and ourselves together that makes us who-and-what we are. It is especially satisfying to see that the mystery of our personal consciousness is brought about both by the entire cosmic process and by our personal participation in it.

When we're first born, we get lots of help from our parents and family, but at some point we have to take charge of ourselves. It's up to us. In words attributed both to Abraham Lincoln and Albert Camus, "After a certain age, each of us is responsible for the look on our face."

The main idea here is that even though our existence is given to us, it's up to us to accept it and to make something of ourselves. In answering our call from the universe, we have both to accept ourselves as we find ourselves to be and also to create ourselves as our personal contribution to the cosmic process.


And what an empowering vision this is! It offers a sense of meaning and purpose for our life which is simply not possible in the old static worldview.

As I said in post #15 (Pre-view and Re-view), I think that of all the various aspects and implications of the modern scientific worldview, the idea that each of us has a personal contribution to make to the world's development will be the most significant in the long run.

To know that we have something to offer the world, to know in the innermost depths of our being that we count, we matter-- that our existence isn't meaningless-- is a tremendously empowering perspective.

Within the evolutionary context of the New Cosmology, the age-old religious valuation of person is confirmed, affirmed and greatly enhanced. It's one of the clearest examples we have of the contemporary convergence of science and religion.

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.