Tuesday, November 20, 2007

#24. Ontogenesis: Phases One & Two

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Whether we call our consciousness "neuro-gnosis," "psyche," "mind," "soul" or "spirit," as individuals we have been "gathered," in Teilhard words, "from all time and the four corners of space into a wondrous knot" so that each of us is an utterly unique expression of the cosmic process and called to contribute to it nothing less than the mystery of ourselves.

Those are scientific concepts, although the language obviously isn't. I see them as good examples of the convergence of contemporary science and the deepest core of humanity's religious insights.

When we recognize that those concepts are descriptions of our place in the scheme of things, they are, in themselves, sufficiently powerful to move us out of the dreary perspectives of religious dualism and scientific rationalism which have haunted the western world for many centuries.

They provide a strong sense of meaning and purpose because they allow us to see our personal existence as part of the evolution of the physical universe. They also help us to realize that, as persons, we are no more static than is the rest of the cosmos. In the language of the neuro-sciences, the conscious ego is an actively fluctuating process, internally self-regulated and self-organized.

As I spelled out in entry #14 (Person as Process), "neuro-gnosis" (our conscious awareness) is the "informational content" of the media of nerve cells and networks of neural structures in which the informational content is "coded" and by way of which it gets modified via our life experience. That awareness, the brain's structuring of the cognized environment, depends on a number of things, including our genes, our developmental history, our present level of structural development and our external environment.

In everyday language, all those words simply mean that we grow and develop just as do the stars, planets and the living things of the Earth, and that the context in which we're growing makes a difference. And because we are in state of continuous dynamic transformation, everything we perceive from the external world is conditioned by our state of structural organization and thus expressed in us as a transformation of that cognized world.

But we don't grow and develop as isolated individuals. Our development takes place within that specifically social and communal context which the human sciences call "culture." That's the main idea in posts #22 (The Other Half of Person) and #23 (Ontogenetic Development). This present post and the next are about Biogenetic Structuralism's understanding of the three phases of our ontogenetic development within the cultural context.


My emphasis on culture is a change in focus from the previous thoughts I've been sharing about the convergence of science and religion. It's a shift from neurological information about how the brain works to information from cultural anthropology about how we develop as conscious persons within the social-cultural context. It's an important transition in the perspectives I've been offering. Previously, those perspectives centered on how the human mind-brain got to be that way ("evolution" in the broadest cosmic sense); now the focus is on to the results of that emergence of conscious awareness (that is, on "culture" in the broadest cosmic sense).

My main point here is that our personal consciousness, which we can think of as "immaterial" or "mental" or "spiritual," is not only in continuity with the earlier levels of biological complexity, but also includes the development of the biological, behavioral, cognitive and emotional aspects of conscious awareness in a communal context. It's all the one same process.

In thinking about ourselves from this anthropological rather than neurological viewpoint, it's important to keep in mind that "culture" refers to whatever we do that's not controlled by our genes and instincts.

As I spelled out in the previous post, culture includes anything and everything that gets "passed on," for the sake of life's survival, from more experienced to younger and less experienced persons. It includes not only language and technology but all the learning, skills and information which need to be passed on precisely because they are not part of our instinctive or genetically-based behavior. And it's in this creative educational-cultural context that our "ontogenetic" development takes place.


A problem in understanding culture as the context for our personal development is that the perspectives of cultural anthropology are unfamiliar to most of us. Our educational institutions and the media simply haven't caught up yet with this branch of scientific research. Cultural anthropology is probably the least familiar of all the contemporary sciences.

But it has much to contribute to a contemporary understanding of ourselves: it's nothing less than the scientific observation of how humans act in groups and the efforts of research scientists to understand our social-communal behavior. It's also the context in which the convergence of scientific and religious perspectives becomes especially clear.

As I've said, we're just not yet attuned to thinking in terms of culture, but it's what we need to do if we are to understand our place in the scheme of things. We need to see not only that the entire cosmic process takes place at three levels of increasing complexity (matter, life and mind) and that the development of human culture is in continuity with that process, but also and specifically that it's culture that is the context for our personal conscious development.

I've referred to this "long view" frequently. I spelled it out in posts #8 (Background to Biogenetic Structuralism) and #16 (Our Own Inner World), and I offered a quick review of it in the previous post (#23 Ontogenetic Development).

I'm emphasizing its importance because, while it's relatively easy to think of our individual selves as part of the cosmic process, it's not so easy to think in terms of our communal relationships within it. It's indeed challenging to see our ontogenetic development in terms of the one cosmic process which continues-- from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago and the evolution of galaxies, stars and planets to the emergence of life on Earth, the development of the primate brain and the emergence of conscious awareness several million years ago-- to our group behavior at this very moment.

But that's the context in which our personal ontogenetic development takes place.


Thanks to its origin in the field of cultural anthropology, Biogenetic Structuralism sees that the three phases of our ontogenetic-cultural development all have to do with the same ultimate question: "What is our place in scheme of things?"

In cultural anthropology, this understanding of "our place in the scheme of things" is called a culture's cosmology. It's described as a culturally-conditioned, cognized view of reality, where reality is seen as an organized whole which offers an account of all the significant elements and relationships that go to make up the universe. What those technical words come down to is that a culture's cosmology defines the place of the individual and the group within the universe.

The "group" can be small as a nuclear family or as large as all humanity of together, and it's in this largest, what might be called "planetary" sense, that the phrase "New Cosmology" is used in both contemporary scientific and religious thought. The New Cosmology is the essentially dynamic rather than static understanding we have today, thanks to modern science, of the place of the individual and the group within the universe. It includes cosmic, biological and human evolution.

Because science is cross-cultural, the New Cosmology is the birthright of all humanity. This is a new situation in our understanding of the world and for this reason the New Cosmology is often referred to as the "New Story" or the "New Story of the Universe." Of course it really is the new story of ourselves. And as Thomas Berry observed many years ago, it's a story we can all agree with.

In New Cosmologist Brian Swimme's words, "For the first time in human existence we have a cosmic story that is not tied to one cultural tradition.... but instead gathers every human group into its meanings."


With regard to our ontogenetic development, cultural anthropologists have observed that most world cultures (although not that of the modern West) recognize that we humans have an internal drive to experience reality at all three levels or phases, and that (at least in all pre-industrial cultures) there is an impetus to guide members through those three stages of ontogenetic development. In the Biogenetic Structuralist framework, both the personal internal drive and the social impetus to guide members are understood themselves to be aspects of the cosmic evolutionary process.

The issue of guidance is a big topic, too big to talk about here; so to keep this posting from becoming too long, I will describe my understanding of the first two phases in this entry and save the third phase, where the issue of guidance makes most sense, for the next post.

Easy tags for the three stages (or levels or phases) of the development of consciousness are belief, experience and participation.


"Belief" sounds like a religious term, but in the anthropological perspective it simply means whatever we accept on the word of others about our place in the scheme of things. It is vicarious knowledge rather than knowledge based on personal experience. Biogenetic Structuralism calls it "received gnosis" to emphasize that while it is our own conscious understanding, it has been given to us by others.

"Belief" doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what we usually think of as religion, although religious beliefs obviously would be included in this first phase of conscious development since they are the gnosis we have about the way things are because we have been told that that's the way things are.

The scientific study of the processes by which we are told that "this is the way things are" is a principal focus of cultural anthropology. The process is called "enculturation" and while it definitely includes catechism-like instruction, it also includes things like the stories, legends, dramas and rituals which are a normal part of every culture.

A good example of a means of enculturation in a non-western culture would be the puppet plays presented in a temple I visited when I was in Singapore. In our culture, Christmas pageants would have a similar role.

But this first phase of ontogenetic development includes all the beliefs a culture offers. In our contemporary situation that means, for example, all the taken-for-granted views about reality presented in TV shows and newspaper ads and on the Web. But it includes whatever we accept to be so, without personal experience of it: whatever we think is true because somebody else has said, or in some other way indicated, that it is.


Despite all that, it's important to be aware that "belief" is not necessarily a bad thing. We couldn't survive the earliest years of childhood without it. And we continue to need and make use of "received gnosis" throughout our lives.

But because it has come to have a bad name, especially as the result of its exploitation by the advertising media and by political and religious authorities, I feel the need to stress that it's not necessarily something negative.

For example, many of the findings of science constitute beliefs for all of us. A trivial example is the existence of Halley's Comet. Most of us have heard of it and we may know that it returns to the Earth approximately every seventy-five years, but few of us have ever seen it. The existence of Halley's Comet is a belief rather than a personal experience for most of us. So is the existence of DNA or chlorophyll. We are dependent on phase one belief for much of our knowledge of the physical world.

Of course, religious beliefs also are examples of this "received gnosis." My point is that whenever we take someone else's word for something we are operating at this first stage of the ontogenetic development of our consciousness.


According to the noted University of Pennsylvania neuro-scientist Andrew Newberg, this first stage of ontogenetic development is wired into the human brain. We can't do without it.

In previous posts I've mentioned that it was media reports of Newberg's work involving brain scans of meditating Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns which originally lead me to the discovery of the earlier generation of researchers (the Biogenetic Structuralists) with which his work is in continuity. Much of Newberg's research focuses on an understanding of the first phase of ontogenetic development in a religious context.

His most recent book is Born to Believe: God, Science, and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs (2007). It's the paperback edition, with a preface and for some reason a different title, of his 2006 book, Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth. Obviously "belief" is a central interest for Newberg.

His earlier books have similar titles: Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (2002) and The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (1999).

None of these books is light reading. They are challenging both in terms of their content and of their often less-than-easy-to-understand style. Essentially, they are attempts to respond to the question of what's going on in the brain during the various phases of ontogenetic development.

I've mentioned Newberg's books to emphasize the importance of belief not just in our everyday lives but especially to emphasize its importance for an understanding of the convergence of science and religion.

Because of the exploitation and abuse of this "received gnosis" by church, government and business leaders, we can easily have a negative attitude toward "belief" and overlook the fact that it is a significant phase of our ontogenetic development. As a foremost pioneering research scientist, Newberg helps us to see that belief is something we should not overlook. We need a clear understanding of it from both an anthropological and a neurological point of view.

The anthropological perspective is easier to understand than the neurological. I've offered the beginnings of an anthropological understanding of belief in this post. And sometime I'd like to offer simple and clear descriptions of the neurological understanding of things like what's going on in the brain when we accept something to be true on the word of others. I'm not ready to do that yet, but I hope I'll be able to, eventually.


Meanwhile, I need to say something about the second phase of ontogenesis. Luckily, this one doesn't need a lot of explanation. We know from personal experience what we mean by "personal experience."

This second phase of ontogenetic development is no less fascinating in terms of what's happening in the brain during it, and nowadays frequent reports of studies along these lines appear in the media. It's impossible to keep up with it.

The main thing I want to point out here is that, in terms of the convergence of scientific findings and religious perspectives, the acquired perspectives and attitudes of phase one may, or may not, be confirmed via our personal experience in phase two. Personal experience may verify the information we previously accepted to be true on the word of others; but it also may contradict that received gnosis. The result is, of course, that we often find ourselves at odds with our upbringing and with commonly accepted social views and attitudes.

Obviously, dysfunctional families as well as dysfunctional religious institutions and dysfunctional administrative governments do a great deal of damage. Much healing is required in our society. People talk nowadays more freely than in the past, for example, about their struggles to recover from an alcoholic parent or to get rid of their "religious baggage." And we can hardly go anywhere nowadays without hearing talk about our need to recover from the phase one acceptance of military and environmental information given out by American political leaders.

My point is that because the healing process is so urgently needed for so many in our society and for society as a whole, we can forget that there's a third stage of personal development.

And it's precisely that third stage to which we have to turn if we are to see the real convergence of the contemporary scientific worldview and the deeper values of humanity's religious traditions. The third stage is where healing is found.

It is precisely the wholistic worldview of the New Cosmology which provides us with the wholeness-making process that's so urgently needed in our damaged culture.


Biogenetic Structuralism understands the third level of consciousness beyond personal experience as nothing less than our personal participation in the cosmic process. It's this scientific understanding of the third phase which involves those things which in the two previous posts I called "in-between" ideas.

I called symbol, myth and ritual "in-between" ideas because they're not only perennial aspects of humanity's global religious practice but also objects of study in the sciences of cultural anthropology and neuro-physiology. They bridge the gap, as odd as it may sound, between science and religion.

But they are also "in-between" concepts in a second sense. Much like what the noted Canadian professor Charles Taylor called our "yearning for eternity" (in his recent Commonweal article which I quoted in the previous post), symbol, myth and ritual tend to be dismissed as belonging to an earlier and more immature stage of human development.

Note that, however, that dismissal itself is a belief. Along with individualism, it's a major belief of the western culture's materialist-rationalist cosmology.

But in terms of what I've called in post #22 "the other half of person" (i.e., the communal and relational parts of our human nature), these "in-between" concepts are essential aspects of our self-understanding. In the scientific perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism, myths and symbolic rituals are understood to be nothing less than the tools by which we participate in the cosmic process.

As I've mentioned many times in these blog entries, I've been interested in both ritual and evolution all my life. So you can get some idea, I hope, of the delight I experienced when I first discovered, thanks to the work of Andrew Newberg, the scientific perspectives of Biogenetic Structuralism which embraces both and attempts to integrate them into its over-all understanding of our human place in the scheme of things.

I don't have the skill to convey those feelings well, but from my forty years as a teacher I've got some ability to spell out the concepts involved. Which is why, of course, I started this blog for "sharing thoughts about the convergence of science and religion." I've had to do a lot of clearing and plowing the ground before I could share these thoughts about ritual and symbol with readers, so I'm glad to finally get the point where I can do that.


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.