Tuesday, October 30, 2007

#22. The Other Half of "Person"

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I entitled my previous blog entry (#21) "Struggling with Words" to make the point that in sharing my thoughts about the convergence of science and religion, I continually feel the need to say that neither "science" nor "religion" mean today what they once meant. I also feel the need to say the same about the word "person." That's what this post is about.

The immense transition in human self-understanding which began at the end of the 19th century was essentially a shift from the static worldview of past centuries to the evolutionary perspectives of modern science. Thanks to it, we can see that personal consciousness is not something separate from, but an integral part of, the evolution of the universe.

I've devoted many previous blog postings to spelling out some of the details of this awesome fact, that each human person is nothing less than an utterly unique expression of the universe become conscious of itself.

But I still struggle with using the word "person." Like the words "science" and "religion," the older 18th and 19th century meanings of "person" still persist today in the conventional understanding of popular culture. The ideal of person as a "rugged individual," left over from America's frontier days, is clearly inadequate for our times. It leaves out the communal and relational aspects of person, precisely those perspectives which are needed for dealing with contemporary problems such as social equality, peace and justice issues and the ecological crisis.

So each time I say "person" I feel the need to add that, just as "science" doesn't mean rationalism and "religion" doesn't mean dualism, so "person" doesn't mean individualism.

There's another half to person.


Readers won't be surprised to hear me say that in struggling to express a fuller understanding of person I've found the Biogenetic Structuralist view especially useful.

Just as the combined neurological and anthropological perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism help us to see the place of individual persons in an evolutionary perspective, so it also allows us a much better sense of the communal and relational aspects of the mystery of personal consciousness. It attempts to understand persons in the broadest possible scientific perspectives of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution.

It's those cultural aspects that I find especially challenging here. Just as we don't yet have good words to talk about post-rationalist science and post-dualistic religion, so we also still lack an appropriate language to talk about the post-individualist understanding of person.

As I said in the previous post, "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."

Even with that statement I feel the need to add that by "contemporary" I mean a growing edge understanding, one that includes the communal and relational aspects of the mystery of person and not the conventional assumptions of the media where "person" seems to mean nothing more than the ego-centric personalities of politicians, sports figures and the celebrities of the entertainment world.

Ours is such an individualistic society that the very idea that there might be something beyond the ego-stage of personal development is incomprehensible to many. And yet if we don't have a good sense of the communal-cultural nature of person-- of our communion with others and of our inter-connectedness with all things-- we have only half a sense of our own personal reality.

So what I hope to do in the next few entries is to take the ideas about person which I've presented in the earlier postings to the next step: to emphasize, with help from the perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism, our communion, connectedness and inter-relatedness with all things. It's here that I find the convergence of science and religion to be most explicit.


A key idea in an understanding of this "other half of person" from the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective is that the development of human consciousness takes place in three clearly defined stages. Seeing these stages as Biogenetic Structuralism sees them is particularly helpful in understanding the communal-cultural aspects of our personal existence.

The Biogenetic Structuralist view offers insights which simply are not available in either the mechanistic-rationalist perspectives of 19th century science or in the static worldviews of dualistic religion.

I hope to spell out those stages of personal consciousness development as Biogenetic Structuralism sees them and to offer an interesting example of their convergence with the emerging sapiential-religious perspectives in the next posting.

Before that, I feel the need to say a few words about the term "culture" from an evolutionary perspective. It's a word we take for granted and one I've used frequently without trying to spell out its meaning, but a clear idea of what "culture" means as it's used in the human sciences is a big help in understanding the religious aspects of "the other half of person."


"Culture" obviously refers to something more than attending operas or visiting museums. In the broadest sense, from the point of view of anthropology, "culture" refers to everything humans do that's beyond what's controlled by our genes and instincts.

The neurological basis of culture is the understanding which Biogenetic Structuralism expresses by its jargon term cognitive extension of prehension. I tried to spell out that concept in some detail in posting #12. The main idea is that because of the human brain's specific structural developments beyond that of other primates, humans can function in such a way that we have a certain amount of freedom, which the other primates lack, in our responses to whatever we encounter in our external environment.

It is a limited but real freedom from an automatic or instinctive response to the threats and opportunities encountered in our world. It accounts for our spiritual nature and for all of our specifically human characteristics such as language, technology and creativity. It also accounts for our relationships with one another and for our behavior in groups-- indeed, for all that's meant by human culture.

A traditional anthropological definition of culture is "passed on learning." It refers to skills and information needed for survival which older, more experienced persons pass on to the younger and less experienced. It has to be passed on precisely because it's not part of our instinctual or genetically-based behavior.

A common example is the fact that even as three-year-olds we seem to have a clear aversion to spiders; it's "in our genes." From a very young age we tend to be cautious about such potentially dangerous creatures in our external environment. But electricity is a recent technological invention and three-year olds don't have an in-born aversion to playing with electrical wires. They have to be taught to avoid them. That's culture.

And it's "culture" in this sense that's what I mean by the "other half of person." Even from that common example it's clear that culture involves communal relationships. What's easy to overlook is the fact that such communal relationships are biological components of the evolutionary process.

We need to see that culture evolves just as planets and stars do. The "other half of person" is this dynamic-evolutionary communal-cultural nature of human consciousness. It's only when we can see that the communal nature of personal consciousness is a part of cosmic evolution that it becomes clear why culture is such an important concept in the converging perspectives of science and religion.


Everyone with a sense of history knows that culture evolves. We know, for example, that our early human ancestors learned to hunt cooperatively in groups, that Paleolithic hunting camps evolved (roughly eight thousand years ago) into settled agricultural villages, and that those Neolithic villages eventually evolved (roughly four thousand years ago) into the earliest cities of the civilization period. In this sense, we easily can see the developmental nature of global human culture.

But I want to say something more here, something even larger: we need to see humanity's communal-cultural evolution as itself part, and indeed a significant part, of the entire cosmic process-- from the Big Bang through the evolution of galaxies and stars to life on Earth and the development of the primate brain and the emergence of personal self-awareness.

And as I see it, it's only when we have this sense of human cultural development within the broadest cosmic context that the insights of the core of humanity's religious perspectives begin to make a great deal of sense. It seems to me that a contemporary understanding of the convergence of science and the sapiential religious perspective depends on our seeing human culture on Earth as part of the evolution of the universe.


For example, there clearly are aspects of humanity's sapiential perspective, such as the pre-Christian idea of the resurrection of the dead, that make some sense in terms of a neurological understanding of our relationship with the physical universe. I offered an example in the previous blog entry (#20), where I pointed out the similarity between the Biogenetic Structuralist concept of cognized environment and theological understanding of Sophiologist Sergius Bulgakov with regard to the possible meaning of bodily resurrection. Even though they are coming from very different starting points, they seem to share a common insight into how personal consciousness is related to the rest of the material cosmos.

Scientific rationalists would, of course, dismiss the very idea of resurrection as childish wishful thinking. But even the fact that humans desire a life beyond the grave seems to make some sense when we understand humanity's cultural evolution as part of "the other half of person."

An interesting article about this desire, written by the award-winning Canadian scholar Charles Taylor, professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University, appeared in a recent issue of Commonweal.

In his article,"The Sting of Death, Why We Yearn for Eternity", Taylor notes that a recent sociological study of unbelievers indicated that the point of their “creed” hardest for them to hold to is the thought that there is no life after death. He observes that even many rationalists-- with their often dismissive attitude which assumes that our desire for eternity is simply a desire not to have our lives stop-- frequently want to have religious funerals.

But it's not that we just want life to continue, says Taylor. Rather, it's the permanent loss of our relationships which is most difficult to accept. As he puts it: "Joy strives for eternity."

When we recognize "the other half of person" as the communal and relational nature of personal consciousness resulting from cosmic and biological evolution, it looks like our very "yearning" for the continuation of our communion and relatedness may be itself an aspect of the cosmic process-- rather than simply reducible to childish wishful thinking.


The doctrine about resurrection isn't exclusively Christian, of course, nor is the desire for the persistence of our relationships. But there are also some religious ideas specific to the Christian tradition which seem to me to become especially clear when we see them in terms of "the other half of person."

Probably the most significant is the very nature of the Christian tradition itself which, in its formative period, saw itself precisely as the communal growing edge of humanity's cultural development. That dynamic ecclesial perspective was lost to the western world for a thousand years, but it emerged again in 20th century theological thought with the recovery of the sapiential core of the Judeo-Christian tradition and it makes good sense in terms of the dynamic-evolutionary and communal-cultural nature of our personal consciousness. I hope to share some thoughts along those lines in future postings.

There are also some "in-between" ideas which are much more clear in light of our awareness of "the other half of person." I have in mind things like symbol, myth and ritual, and related concepts such as shamanism and cosmology.

I call them "in-between" ideas because, while we don't think of them as scientific concepts and we know they're not religious doctrines, they are in fact perennial aspects of humanity's global religious practice and they are in fact objects of study in the human sciences.

Much like what Charles Taylor calls our "yearning for eternity," however, the very idea of things such as symbolic rituals or shamanistic cosmologies tend to be dismissed as belonging to an earlier and more immature stage of human development. But they all make some sense in terms of the "other half of person" and Biogenetic Structuralism's understanding of the stages of personal development.

I see them as nothing less than central aspects of the contemporary convergence of science and religion and it was my life-long interest in such things, along with my life-long interest in evolutionary science, that made my discovery of the Biogenetic Structuralist perspective so fascinating.


I entitled my previous blog entry (#21) "Struggling with Words" to make the point that, as I said above, in sharing my thoughts about the convergence of science and religion, I continually feel the need to say that neither "science" nor "religion" nor "person" mean what popular culture takes them to mean. Even the word "culture" has a much more cosmic meaning than is clear from the term "popular culture."

This struggle to find good words is due to the immense transition in our human self-understanding which began with the 19th-century shift from the static to a dynamic-evolutionary worldview.

Today, we can see personal consciousness as an integral part of the dynamic cosmic process, and precisely for that reason we can see that there is an "other half of person"-- the cultural and relational aspects of the mystery of our personal awareness-- in a way former generations could not.

My whole purpose in writing this blog is to share what I see as the riches of these deeper perspectives with anyone interested, and to do so with that rather odd and mostly unknown branch of the human sciences which calls itself Biogenetic Structuralism and offers more help than anything else I know to spell out the convergence of science and religion.


So that's where I'm going with all this. With this posting on the "other half of person" I feel that I'm at a turning point in these efforts. It's a good time to say "thank you" to all who have offered encouragement so far with this project.

Thanks, especially, for hanging in there when you repeatedly come across phrases like cognized environment and cognitive extension of prehension and see them linked up with things like myth and ritual. I see them, in terms of Biogenetic Structuralism's understanding of the stages of personal development, as nothing less than central aspects of the contemporary convergence of science and religion.

So... Thanks, thanks, 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.