Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#81. The Deep Roots of "Person"

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Author and artist Mary Conrow Coelho sent comments on post #79 (A Dowd Sampler) which tie in well with my previous post about the relationship between mind and matter worked out by the "Two Mavericks," physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychologist C. G. Jung.

Although at first it may not seem so, they are especially helpful in my struggle to express well my understanding of religious ritual in connection with evolution. Here's Mary's note in full:

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Hi Sam: I have wanted to comment about your reflections on Thank God for Evolution. I do appreciate Michael's energetic work, his very important travels, together with Connie, and the many things that you mention that are valuable about the book. They are indeed valuable. I'll just try to say a word about my concerns in response to the paragraph that follows, which you included in your section about Michael's Higher Porpoise:

The pre-frontal cortex is especially significant because it is what makes each of us not just a living being or a mammal or a primate but a person. It is the home of our personal consciousness and freedom-- of the mystery which we experience ourselves to be.

I do not know if this is fair, but what worries me is the failure to mention that the pre-frontal cortex, which I assume has been correctly identified as important in personal consciousness, is attributed to be a full explanation of "the mystery which we experience ourselves to be."

This neglects the vast "within" of things, including the vast "within" of the pre-frontal cortex. I think personal identity, including experience of that identity is not fully described by the brain structures alone, as experience of the vast "within" (a depth dimension of it?) is part of identity, although, of course, also integral to the structure.

When you talk about the structure (the form) don't you also have to discuss the nature of the matter that it is comprised of and the energetic "emptiness" that is the nature of that matter, although now highly structured? This is the kind of distinction that I don't remember him making. Tell me if I'm wrong. This topic would require a book.

Michael's writings do not indicate as full an appreciation of the contemplative tradition as I'd like to see; I do think emphasis on anatomy without reference to depth experiences is inadequate. I don't know the relationship between numinous experience and/or mystical experience (includes "I am" experiences) and brain structure. However I doubt that such experiences are registered in the pre-frontal cortex only, so assuming this is correct, "being a person" has deep roots in the nature of matter and some resonance or registering (through an alternative form of knowing) of those deep roots in the mind and body. It is of course most important to say that this ground of identity does not negate the role of the pre-frontal cortex in the personal consciousness.

This question of the nature of contemplative experience and mystical experience is an important question since it relates to the experience of being a person. I ask this question simply to try to get at the danger of identifying too much with anatomical structure, although that it not to say it is not obviously essential.

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This interesting note from Mary Coelho brings up two important concerns. One is an appreciation of contemplative-mysticism perspectives. The other is the question of the brain's activity as the "cause" of human consciousness.

Some thoughts about the mystical tradition first. While there's certainly not an emphasis on contemplative perspectives in Thank God for Evolution, I don't see that fact as a lack of appreciation of those perspectives so much as a focus on what Dowd is trying to do: help people to see that the scientific story of the universe is compatible with-- and, indeed, greatly enriching of-- the Christian tradition.

He's talking to people for whom the contemplative perspectives simply haven't been much a part of their religious worldview for many centuries. 

It has been missing even within the older "catholic" denominations (Roman, Episcopal and Lutheran) and not at all present within the Evangelical and Fundamentalist denominations.

From my experience I'd say that the vast majority of those still actively involved in the institutional churches simply remain unaware of the mystical dimensions of their tradition. The vast majority of Christians-- not just ordinary people but also clergy, administrators and even theologians-- had nothing to do with it. It was the provenance of monks and nuns.

And the monks themselves had the view that it wasn't for everybody: it was only for the "strong." A friend recently read me some remarks by Bernard of Clairvaux to that effect. They occur right at the beginning of the first of his many sermons on The Song of Songs.

Bernard says: "The instructions that I address to you, my brothers, will differ from those I should deliver to people in the world, at least the manner will be different... [I] will give them milk to drink rather than solid food, and will serve a more nourishing diet to those who are spiritually enlightened.... who have reached maturity."

What makes you mature, according to Bernard? If you have "prolonged your study of divine teaching, mortified your senses, and meditated on God's law day and night."

Bernard, a contemporary of the 12th-century saint Hildegard of Bingen, was an early and highly influential member of the Cistercian order, so for nearly a thousand years the contemplative perspective was more or less closed to "people in the world."

The efforts of Thomas Merton in the middle of the 20th century, and of people like Father Thomas Keating and Brother David Steindl-Rast in the second half of the 20th century, remain pioneering efforts.

Somewhat earlier, the French monk Henri Le Saux and British monk Bede Griffith went to India to find this contemplative dimension which Bede called "the other half of my soul."

All this is very far from the concerns of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals-- as well as of most members of other denominations today. 

As I wrote in my posts (#73 to #79) about his insights, Ken Wilber helps us to see how the contemplative vision-- as well as the basic spiritual perspectives of Western society-- were definitively lost to Western culture as a result of those cultural movements called Modernism and Post-modernism.

That vision is however the focus of many outside the Christian tradition. It has been rediscovered, for example, in our secular culture by the "Integral" community. They talk about spirituality as it was understood within the Western tradition for many centuries-- but without any special reference to its reality in the early Christian tradition.

Bruno Barnhart, an author I've mentioned a number of times in these posts, says that it's as if the ancient wisdom of the desert hermits is blossoming anew in the modern desert of our secular world.

I think that Western society will eventually catch on to its religious roots, but just now our confused Post-modern cultural situation makes it almost impossible. Professor Paul Lakeland, speaking at a recent conference of church-reform-minded Catholics in Minnesota, described American Catholicism as being "in hospice." So we can't expect much from the religious tradition itself.

At the same time I think it's important to say that the contemplative-mystical perspective is at the very heart of the new cosmology. And thanks to Mary Coelho's comments I see that it's also at the heart of my efforts to express well how religious ritual relates to the big story of the universe.


Mary's second idea (which she presented first) has to do with whether and/or how human consciousness-- the mystery of the human person-- can be understood as the result of, or as an expression of, the activities of the human brain.

If we ask the question in its briefest form-- Does the mystery of our personal consciousness depend on the brain?-- I think the answer is 'yes.'

But I need to say three things to make clear what I mean.


1. From an evolutionary perspective, human consciousness is an emergent quality, just as is life itself. Complexity is the very drive of the evolutionary process: the more complex things become, the more consciousness appears. When, several million years ago, the brains of primates evolved just a little more degree of complexity, human self-awareness emerged.

That self-awareness-- the mystery which we experience ourselves to be-- really does depend on the workings of our brain. I would emphasize, however, that it's the workings of the human brain we're talking about. What results from the complexity of the human brain really is something different from and more than what results from the complexity of the brains of our primate and mammal relatives.

It's called a "phase change" when a small change produces a big result. I wrote about it back in post #12, on "The Cognitive Extension of Prehension." The work of the Biogenetic Structuralists helped me to understand this idea well, which is why I gave so much time and energy to the Biogenetic Structuralist perspectives. Those researchers were pioneers, but because they were not as good at teaching or communicating as they might have been, their insights were not picked up and built on by others back in the early 1970s and 80s.

The reason why the idea that, as Mary Coelho says, "being a person has deep roots in matter" is such a challenge for us is because we have to hold two difficult ideas at the same time. One is that the mystery that we experience ourselves to be is an expression of the brain's functioning. 

The other is that we are keenly aware that there is no evidence for the persistence of personal consciousness once the brain is severely damaged or destroyed.

Personally, I don't see that holding these two thoughts at the same time is incompatible with the basic mystical tradition. That tradition sees all reality as one with the ultimate Mystery. As I see it, it's how we understand the relationship between the world and the Mystery which causes problems.

I think that relationship is especially clear when we understand the evolutionary process as the expression or manifestation of the Mystery. 

It helps to understand the Great Mystery not as a reality separate from the world (as it was understood in the past) but, in the words of the great 20th-century theologian Karl Rahner, as the "context and precondition" for the world.

The three-thousand-year-old Tao Te Ching (I shared a version of it in posts #68 to #72) also helps us to grasp the essence of contemplative perspective: that all reality-- energy, light, matter, life, consciousness, self-awareness-- is one with the ultimate Mystery.

An awkward-- but helpful-- way to say it is that "nothing is not non-dual with the Great Mystery."

A more familiar name for describing the cosmic process from the Christian tradition is divine incarnation. As the Russian Sophiologist Sergius Bulgakov expresses it, the evolution of the universe is the "actualization of the divine potentialities." (And the great dignity of conscious persons is that we are called to consciously participate in that realization.)

Personally, I think the simple term "unitive" is best for what we're talking about here. It emphasizes that the perspective is the very opposite of religious dualism, a viewpoint which has done so much damage to the world-- and also to the religious tradition itself which promoted it in contrast to its own core perspectives.


2. A second major idea, in the context of saying 'yes' to "Does the mystery of our personal consciousness depend on our brain?" is that, as I see it, this unitive (mystical-contemplative) perspective is the basis for-- or better, it's another version of-- the sacramental worldview.

Again, "there is nothing that's not non-dual with the Mystery." While our human consciousness is a very special case of that non-duality, the fact is that every thing and every human activity can expand (heighten or deepen or increase) our awareness of our non-duality.

And those things which allow us to enter more profoundly into our experience of unity with the Mystery have traditionally been called "sacred things" or "sacraments."

And this, I think, is where-- finally!-- ritual makes most sense. Whatever intentional and conscious activities we do to help us to that unitive experience is what we call "ritual."

And we know that many traditionally "religious" activities-- chanting, drumming, dancing, silence-- can in fact direct our attention to and promote our awareness of the non-duality of all things-- including our own personal mystery-- with the Great Mystery.

I finally see why I have had such a difficult time feeling satisfied with my expression of religious ritual in the context of cosmic evolution. It only makes sense in the unitive perspective! I'm grateful to Mary Coelho for her comments which have helped to make this clear to me.


3. One final idea about all this. Complex things come apart; living things die.

If we hold to the thought that a person can exist apart from matter-- from body and the brain-- we're back again to the dualistic view of human nature and cosmos. I'd express it even more strongly by saying that it's not only a dualistic view, it's also a non-sacramental and anti-incarnational view point. It's incompatible with the basic Judeo-Christian tradition.

Of course what this means, since we know that all living things die, is that the ultimate question for each of us personally is "Do conscious persons stop existing?"

I think all we can say in response to that is, "We hope not."

But it's not just a casual hope. It depends on our sense of all things being non-dual with that Mystery which is the context and pre-condition for everything. It's the very essence of the unitive-contemplative-mystical perspective-- that "there is nothing that is not non-dual"--that allows us to trust, as Karl Rahner expresses it, that we do indeed "have a future."

As I see it, the question is not so much "Does my soul survive death?" as something more along the lines of "Is the evolution of the universe meaningless in the long run?"

To me, believing that we have a separate soul that survives death, as glorious as that thought seemed to past ages, isn't a sufficiently appreciative view of the cosmic process.

So the ultimate question isn't as much personal ("Do I have a future?") as it is cosmic: "Does all reality, as the incarnation of the ultimate Mystery, have a future?"

A more provocative way to ask it is: "In the end, will God be a failure?"


In the previous post I described the efforts of C. G. Jung and Wolfgang Pauli to understand the link between matter and mind. I see their work as a significant step (although hardly recognized yet) in the recovery of the unitive and sacramental world view.

It was a tremendous breakthrough in global humanity's cultural evolution when, toward the middle of the 20th century, two leading scientific researchers-- "mavericks" in the areas of quantum physics and depth psychology-- were able to see and acknowledge that cosmos and psyche, universe and person, are two aspects of the one same deeper reality.

For the first time in many centuries, the Western world once again began to move toward the realization that, in Mary Coelho's words, "being a person has deep roots in the nature of matter."

And for me personally, those insights offer an excellent context for expressing a satisfactory understanding of the connection between religious ritual and the evolution of the universe.

Again, thanks to Mary for her helpful and stimulating comments!

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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.