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I was especially delighted when I discovered the efforts of the Biogenetic Structuralists to understand our human condition in light of the scientific findings of cultural anthropology, neurophysiology and biological evolution because it brings together the two big interests in my life, science and religion. And it's a non-dualist perspective: it does not put humans in a unique category outside the rest of the natural world but sees us, rather, an integral part of the evolution of the universe. And it doesn't dismiss religion and ritual, as rationalist science does: it understands them to be a natural part of human life.
The Biogenetic Structuralist concept of cognized environment especially caught my attention because, among other things, it sounds much like what the Russian Sophiologist, Sergius Bulgakov, has to say about the relationship of personal consciousness to the external world.
Bulgakov was talking in the context of a theological understanding of the early Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, so it's an unlikely combination, to be sure. But I found it a remarkable convergence. In this blog post I want to share the two understandings. I'll just put them side by side, and you can see what you think.
I've mentioned the Biogenetic Structuralism concept of cognized environment in many previous posts and it is the focus of entry #13. Unfortunately, these research scientists did not come up with better names for their ideas-- names which would be more clear-- and we have to deal with their scientific jargon.
The main idea of cognized environment is that personal consciousness, when understood in terms of the functions of the brain at the third level of the cosmic process, is seen to be nothing less than the matter of the Earth become alive and self-aware.
The great value of seeing the human spirit from this neurological perspective is that it doesn't separate us from the rest of the living world, as religious and rationalist dualism does, but helps us to see that the human spirit is rooted in the Earth and the cosmic process-- that the human mind and heart is, indeed, "the universe become conscious of itself."
Here's a quick review of the main point. In trying to respond to the question, "What's going on in the brain?" the Biogenetic Structuralists distinguish between the operational environment and cognized environment. Operational environment is their jargon term for the external world outside ourselves: the physical universe as the environment (the world) in which we exist-- and within which, of course, our brain operates.
In contrast, they use the term cognized environment to refer to the inner world which is continually being created by the structural activities of the brain. That inner world is our personal awareness. These research scientists like to call it "neuro-gnosis", meaning personal awareness-- "knowledge" in a broad sense-- which arises from the activity of the brain's living cells.
We need to keep in mind that, as the most complex thing in the dynamic universe, our brain's neural cells and networks are a dynamic field of electro-chemical reactions, and that neuro-gnosis-- our personal consciousness-- is the result of that dynamic activity of the neuro-gnostic structures.
It also helps to remind ourselves that we're talking about the third level of complexity in the cosmic process.
Since we're not used to thinking in terms of levels of complexity, here's an easy example: At one level, the letters of the alphabet are only bits of colored ink on a piece of paper, or dark marks on a computer screen. When joined together in various combinations, however, meaning emerges even at a very simple level of complexity: the letters D, G and O, for example, can be put together to mean "dog" or "God." It's clear that meaning emerges via complexity. We can, of course, put those words together to make sentences and put the sentences together to make stories, so that at greater levels of complexity ever greater levels of meaning emerge.
Living things, including ourselves, work the same way. Chemical compounds make up cells, cells make up tissues, tissues make up organs, organs make up systems, and organ systems combine to make up a whale or a maple tree. At each level of complexity, something "more" emerges.
In our brain-- the greatest level of complexity known to us-- the "more" that emerges is what Biogenetic Structuralism calls "neuro-gnosis"-- and the rest of us call conscious awareness.
The rudimentary gnosis-structure we're born with results from natural selection and the cosmic evolutionary process, and as we grow and develop, our personal consciousness grows by corrections and modifications based on data coming in from the operational (i.e., external) environment.
It's an evolutionary survival mechanism. The main idea is that the brain's primary function is to construct an internal version of the external environment, which it does in order to moderate input from and response to that external world. It allows us to recognize what's potentially hurtful or helpful in the operational environment.
It provides an evolutionary advantage because the sense data is processed in terms of how it fits with previous information already stored in the brain and nervous system. From a biogenetic (evolutionary) perspective, neuro-gnosis is the "informational content" of the neurological structures, and the neuro-gnostic structures are the media of nerve cells and their networks in which this information is "coded" and by way of which it can be modified.
And as I've said before, all this wouldn't sound so strange if it wasn't ourselves that we're talking about. But the point of it all is that personal consciousness is the "environment, cognized." Our consciousness is the world, internalized. We are the cosmos become conscious of itself.
And ours is the first age in humanity's cultural development in which we can understand ourselves this way, based on objective data from scientific studies of brain and nervous system. The main thing I want to emphasize here is that the mystery which we are as persons is the result of the physical matter of the universe; at the third level of complexity in the cosmic process, we are the matter of the cosmos showing itself as persons, each of us utterly unique in the history of the world.
In his discussion of the resurrection of the dead, Sergius Bulgakov says something that sounds very similar. A little background will help show why what he has to say is important.
Bulgakov was born in 1871 into what was still the medieval culture of Central Russia. He became an atheist in early adolescence, studied law at the University of Moscow and eventually became a noted Marxist economist. At the age of twenty-four he began a religious conversion. It's of great interest that his conversion was not occasioned by any church-related experience but by an experience of nature: his first sight of the Caucasus mountains while he was driving with friends in a sleigh across the southern steppes of Russia.
In his autobiography, The Unfading Light, he says, "Suddenly and joyfully in that evening hour my soul was stirred. O mountains of the Caucasus! I saw your ice sparkling from sea to sea, your snows reddening under the morning dawn, the peaks which pierced the sky, and my soul melted in ecstasy.... The first day of creation shone before my eyes. Everything was clear, everything was at peace and full of ringing joy. My heart was ready to break with bliss." He describes this was "my first encounter with Sophia-Wisdom." (The autobiography is not yet available in English, but quotes from it can be found in Christopher Bamford's forward to Bulgakov's Sophia, The Wisdom of God: An Outline of Sophiology .
He eventually rejected Marxism for the idealist philosophy of the famous poet of the divine feminine, Vladimir Soloviev. After he was ordained he was exiled from his homeland by the Communists and he spent many years as dean of the Orthodox seminary in Paris. He was well aware of the scientific developments of his day, had a special interest in cosmology and anthropology, and was on good terms with religious thinkers in the English-speaking world, including the United States. He died in 1944. He is considered by many to be the greatest Orthodox thinker of the 20th century.
His most famous and comprehensive work is his book on the nature of the church, The Bride of the Lamb. Because of his educational background in law and economics, he wrote in a heavy Germanic philosophical style-- and originally in Russian-- so his work is not easy reading. Only in the last few years has it been published in English.
He helped to recover the sapiential religious thought of the first thousand years of Christian history. It differs from the static, dualistic and rationalist worldview familiar to western Christians in that is sees the universe as one dynamic process, moving from creation to fulfillment. This includes our personal development and the persistence of our relationships. If he were writing today, Bulgakov would say something like: We have to see that there is a fourth stage to the evolutionary process, the final completion and fulfillment of all things.
What Bulgakov has to say about the resurrection of the dead is found in the Section III, Eschatology, in his book on the church, The Bride of the Lamb. Eschaton means "last" or "end" or "final things."
He begins by noting that there are no defined dogmas concerning the eschaton, although four statements concerning the Last Things are familiar from the ancient creeds: "He will come again in glory... Of his kingdom there will be no end... We believe in the resurrection of the dead ... and life in the world to come."
Much of what Bulgakov has to say is commentary on the many scriptural passages which deal with these four articles of the creed. His first point is basic and he makes it strongly: the “end of the world” does not mean that the universe will be annulled but that it will be renewed: it will be transformed and transfigured. “It will be, but in a new way.” Our world and the world to come are one and the same world, but it will be in a different state. This, he insists, is what scripture means by a “new heaven and a new earth.”
Bulgakov notes that our language is “helpless in trying to describe the reality” of the New Creation. He nevertheless has a good bit to say about it, and much of it is commentary on various eschatological passages in the New Testament, especially in the Book of Revelations. Of these, Bulgakov says clearly, “the images of this symbolic language are not to be taken literally.”
The resurrection of the dead and the presence of Christ at the Second Coming are one identical thing; Bulgakov emphasizes that “All rise in Christ.” Just as our one human nature shared by multiple persons was assumed in the Incarnation, so it is resurrected in the Universal Resurrection. Here, once again however, Bulgakov acknowledges that we can’t get any “real ideas about all this on this side of death and resurrection.”
At the same time, he reminds us that the essence of the Christian faith is that the body will be restored and the person will be changed. This is “the hope” without which, as St Paul says, “our faith is in vain.” This means, says Bulgakov, that the risen body “will be proper to each person.” It’s our body. At the same time, he says, it will also be “the one universal corporality which is the entire natural world.”
His heavy language can get in the way, but what he's saying is that each of us will have the entire transfigured cosmos as our own risen body, and that it will be held in a way that it is personal and unique to each of us.
Both Bulgakov and the Biogenetic Structuralists are speaking from within an non-static and non-dualistic context. And while the scientists are talking about one thing (a neurological understanding of consciousness) and the theologian about another (the "new way we will be" at the eschaton of the world), they both share the same insights within that evolutionary and post-rationalist perspective: that human beings are the universe become aware of itself and that each of us is a unique manifestation of it.
Bulgakov says, "The risen body will be the entire natural world, held in a way that it is proper to each person." The Biogenetic Structuralists say, "Personal consciousness is the external world uniquely cognized by each of us."
I find the convergence of these insights remarkable.
However, considering that we're just coming out of several centuries of rationalist positivism, it's understandable that even many New Cosmologists are somewhat reluctant to deal with the idea of a "fourth level of the evolutionary process." But if I'm understanding the neurological data correctly, as I mentioned in blog #8 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."
And in that context, the promised resurrection of the dead doesn't seem so unreasonable.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007