Saturday, October 20, 2007

#21. Struggling with Words

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It isn't easy to write about the convergence of science and religion.

Each time I use the word "science" I feel the need to make the point that I'm not talking about 19th century rationalist-positivist science. 

That early form of science rejected feeling and emotion and even personal consciousness itself as a component of the real world. It was a materialist and mechanical understanding of living things and human life and it is, unfortunately, what "science" still means for many people today.

And each time I use the word "religion" I have a similar need to make the point that I'm not talking about fundamentalist and authoritarian religion. Religious dualism, like rationalist science, was unable to see humanity as a part of the physical world and emphasized our need to escape from it. It, too, is still with us today.

Although post-rationalist science has been around since the late 1800s, we don't yet have a good name for it. It includes relativity, quantum mechanics and complexity theory, but its most distinctive characteristic is its understanding of the world as dynamic rather than static, and it recognizes personal consciousness as an integral part of the cosmic process.

Our understanding of religion has likewise changed dramatically since the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, there were major changes in religious thought just as there were in scientific thought. 

Theologians have not only recovered the inner core of the Judeo-Christian tradition which had been lost to western civilization after the Dark Ages but also have moved forward to include the best values of the modern world; those values especially include an appreciation of the universe as developmental and of persons as central to the cosmic process.

We don't yet have a good name for non-dualist religion, just as we don't have a good name yet for post-mechanistic science; but as a way of wisdom rather than theological concepts, it can be called sapiential or sophianic.

Contemporary science and contemporary religious thought converge precisely in their understanding of the cosmos as evolutionary and of human consciousness as integral to it.


I was delighted when I discovered Biogenetic Structuralism because its emphasis-- on understanding in an evolutionary context the brain and nervous system and the religious behavior which results from it-- helps bring these things together. It attempts to integrate the various perspectives of the physical, biological and human sciences, and sees human consciousness at the center of it all.

It's those perspectives which are what I've been attempting to share with readers via this blog.

In posting #8 I offered a background to the whole Biogenetic Structuralist view and in post #10 an overview of the basic ideas found in these creative scientists' initial 1974 book, Biogenetic Structuralism

In those two postings I spelled out some specific points which I find especially significant in terms of the convergence of science and religion.

Most of the postings since have offered details about what I see as the main idea of this convergence: the centrality of personal consciousness and our participatory role in the cosmic process.

We're still not use to thinking of ourselves this way, so these ideas are worth bringing together here.

In post #12, The Cognitive Extension of Prehension, I described the neurological understanding of personal consciousness as being both something new to the cosmic evolutionary process and at the same time rooted in the life of the Earth.

This understanding alone marks the end of religious dualism, as I tried to spell out in post #11: it takes away nothing of the spiritual nature of the human person to know ourselves as the result of the evolution of the universe. Indeed, it greatly enhances our understanding of human dignity.

In post #13, Cognized Environment, I described some of the basic neurological findings about the workings of the human brain with regard to the fact that human consciousness is the universe become conscious of itself. I've mentioned these central ideas in many entries since.

Post #14 deals with the mystery of ourselves as a process rather than as something static. While thinking of the universe as a process is one thing, thinking of ourselves that way is much more challenging. But it opens us to a far larger self-understanding than is possible in the old static worldview.

It helps us to see, for example, the utter uniqueness of each person, as I described in post #16.

And, when we recognize that what the universe is doing is making unique personal copies of itself (post #17) and that we are called to freely contribute our personal uniqueness to the evolutionary process (post #18), we have a much more integral and wholistic of ourselves and the world than our ancestors ever could.

Post #19 has to do with how we respond to our call to take part in the creative process; each of us is called to become a personal embodiment of that diversity which appears to be a central goal of the universe. I called that participation "our service to God." And in the most recent posting, #20, I described what might be called God's service to us, resurrection of the dead.

In each case, I've tried to point out areas where contemporary science is saying something much like the insights which have emerged in the new religious thinking. Central to both is precisely the evolutionary or development perspective missing from rationalist science and dualistic religion.

The ideas in each separate blog entry are a challenge. But while the words and concepts may be unfamiliar, when taken together they begin to form a coherent picture of that very different view of things which has emerged from contemporary science and which relates to the contemporary recovery of the "sapiential" foundations of western religion.


In trying to spell out all this, one of the major problems I encounter is a lack of clear and useful terms. We don't yet have the right words to allow us to express well these post-19th century viewpoints.

Religious people still hear "science" as a synonym for atheistic materialism, and non-religious people still hear "religion" as synonymous with superstition and ignorance. In the pre-20th century context of rationalism and dualism, religion and science are mutually exclusive worldviews. They can only be imaged together in terms of conflict and the very idea of their convergence seems to be an impossibility.

Examples of that static 19th century perspective-- often presented in terms of "faith versus reason" and "belief versus atheism"-- are still found daily in the media. It's only when we see things from a dynamic-developmental perspective that we can see points of convergence.

I offered a challenging example in the most recent post (#20) where I described how the Biogenetic Structuralist description of the relationship between inner consciousness and the external world sounds similar to the understanding of the relationship between the human spirit and the material cosmos found in the discussion by the Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov of the ancient Judeo-Christian doctrine of resurrection of the dead.

The fact that so many thoughtful people have a difficult time with the idea that completion and fulfillment might be a normal part of the cosmic process demonstrates how totally pervasive the static rationalist-positivist perspective continues to be.

In a dynamic unitive perspective, where diversity and uniqueness can be seen as central values to the cosmic process, it doesn't seem so inconsistent to assume that our personal contribution to the cosmic process will be incorporated into it.

We know so little, still, about the laws of the natural world. It may be that those laws include, rather than exclude, a completion of the cosmos process in such a way that nothing-- and especially not its central value of personal consciousness-- will be lost.

My point here is not to argue for the truth of a specific religious doctrine, but only to say that once we move out of the 19th century static worldview, some significant convergences become apparent. If, that is, we can find the right words to express them without evoking the 19th century meanings still attached to them.


Here's a second important example of the struggle for helpful words. It's our need to express clearly the common understanding, found in both the sapiential religious perspective and the contemporary scientific worldview but totally lacking in the dualistic-mechanistic perspective, of the inter-relatedness of things.

I've found the Biogenetic Structuralist view especially useful here. Just as it helps us to spell out the nature of the individual person in an evolutionary perspective, so it also helps us to understand the communal aspects of the mystery of personal consciousness.

Biogenetic Structuralism calls itself "Anthropology Plus" because, while it began with the efforts of 20th-century cultural anthropologists, it also includes a strong emphasis on the evolutionary development of the primate brain and the consequent social-cultural aspects of human existence seen in that context. For these reasons, its understanding of personal consciousness is especially helpful in understanding ourselves in the broadest possible scientific perspectives of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution. And this, of course, is also the context in which 20th-century religious thinkers have been working out their new understandings of human nature.

But both efforts have a difficult time finding the right words to express the communal or relational aspects of human existence.

So, just as I feel the need, each time I use the word "science," to say that I mean more than its conventional 19th-century rationalist-positive sense, and each time I use the word "religion" to say that I mean more than its conventional dualist and authoritarian sense, so I feel a similar need each time I use the word "person." In the cosmic context of both contemporary science and religious thought, "person" refers to far more than individual. But "person," as the rugged individual of America's early pioneer days, still remains the ideal in conventional perspectives.

I know it sounds odd to say that "There's more to person than the individual." But that's exactly my point. Finding good words to talk about it is the struggle I'm pointing to in this blog entry. The communal and relational aspects of person are part of the perspectives of both contemporary science and contemporary religion, but in trying to express those converging perspectives well, the very words we do have available tend to get in the way as much as they are helpful.

Ours is such an individualistic culture that the very idea that there might be something beyond the ego-stage of personal development is as incomprehensible to many as is the idea, from a rationalistic point of view, that the universe's evolutionary process might have a positive outcome.


In any case, in sharing my thoughts about the convergence of science and religion, it's some ideas about this understanding that "there's more to person than the individual" which is what I'm planning to present next.

What I hope to do is to take the ideas about person which I've presented in the earlier postings to the next step, where the emphasis is on our communion and connectedness with all things.

The words we have available to talk about the development of personal consciousness beyond the individualistic stage are both familiar and yet fuzzy for most of us. They include terms such as myth, ritual, symbol, shamanism and cosmology, and no matter what our background, most of us may be inclined to automatically dismiss one or more of them as irrelevant. But none of them are.

Religious ritual, for example, constitutes a fundamental part of humanity's religious practice, and while the idea that science might have something positive to say about it will seem to many an exaggeration, the place of ritual in personal and communal development is, in fact, a major part of the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective. The second of these pioneering researchers' three basic texts is The Spectrum of Ritual.

It is in that book that they describe the development of personal consciousness in the context of the cosmic process and the evolution of the brain as an experience of reality at three distinct levels of cosmological understanding. And it is thoughts about those levels of experience, and how the scientific understanding of them converges with the emerging sapiential perspectives, that I hope to share with readers in my next few blog postings.

Ambitious, to be sure! And sure to be a struggle to come up with the right words.


But you can help.

We've all had teachers who obviously knew what they were talking about, but were unable to convey their ideas clearly. Less obvious is that what helps a speaker to communicate clearly with others is, more than anything else, the feedback the listeners provide.

Feedback takes innumerable forms, from an unconscious shuffling of feet or a repeated glancing at the clock to the slightest hint of a smile as well as an explicit comment or question.

So please, shuffle your feet-- electronically. Or e-mail a hint of a smile. I need your feedback.

If the formal blog-comment process seems too complicated, just use my regular e-mail. The address is below. Thanks!

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.