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This post #103 is about an especially significant book.
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Some thoughts I wrote out in July '04 for a friend; a review of Nature's Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind, by Peter Corning ISBN: 0521825474 (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
As I’ve already said, this is the most interesting book about the evolutionary worldview I’ve seen since I first read Teilhard’s Phenomenon Of Man forty years ago. Corning calls synergy “magic,” and if “the working together of things to produce results otherwise not possible” isn’t magic, I don’t know what is. The cooperative relationship between things, or more correctly, the creative results produced by such cooperation, is what makes evolution happen: “The synergies produced at one level become the building blocks for the next level.”
It seems to me that the very appearance in our time of the idea of synergy is itself an example of synergy. Such a concept isn’t even possible in a static worldview. We are, indeed, in the midst of an “immense transition.”
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the awareness of synergy is that it is also, among many other things, the discovery of creativity. In the evolutionary process, the new forms that emerge were previously unpredictable, so that, as Corning says, “the whole process of cosmic evolution is profoundly creative.” In a static perspective, we were able to use the passive tense to say that the world “was created.” But then we came to see that creation “is still going on.” And with an understanding of synergy as a central aspect of the evolutionary process, we can now say something even more significant: the world itself is creative.
We’ve come a long way from saying creation “happened six thousand years ago.” But there’s still more to this synergy perspective. Not only is creation creative, we now see ourselves as the central agents of that creative process. Human persons have a major role in the cosmic process of things “working together to produce results otherwise not possible.”
If the transition from static to dynamic cosmos is a great challenge to many, the transition from what Bruno calls the “suppression of the image of person” to seeing that image located at the very heart of the evolving universe is far more challenging.
The British scholar (and now-retired Orthodox bishop Kallistos of Patmos), Timothy Ware, said in a talk at Princeton a few years that the great task of the 21st century is that we should finally come to an adequate understanding of ‘person.’ The synergy-perspective helps tremendously. It sees persons called both to their individual uniqueness and to communion with others. And called to bring about-- precisely via those cooperative relationships-- new things at new levels of complexity.
What a contrast from “the suppression of the image of the person” that prevailed through most of the history of Western culture.
Corning asks at some point, “If synergy is everywhere, why are we not more aware of it?” His response is that “it seems to have to do with the way our minds work.” We can perceive parts or wholes fairly easily, he says, but not the relationships between the parts.
To put it in Jungian terms: the Sensation function allows us to perceive parts and the Intuitive function lets us perceive wholes, but our consciousness apparently does not operate in such a way that we can directly perceive relationships. Certainly the Feeling function focuses on relationships, but it’s an evaluative activity: we don’t so much “perceive” as judge relationships (in terms of whether or not they are agreeable to us). In dealing with the relationship of parts to wholes, it looks like conscious awareness “skips a step.”
That thought got me wondering whether something similar might also be true about the Thinking function. Do we skip a step there, too? I think we do. What the Thinking function evaluates seems to be the agreeability of words (spoken or visual) with data (facts). If that’s so, it explains why there can be many different versions of what’s considered to be the truth about something. It looks like we don’t directly “perceive” thoughts (and their verbal expression) any more than we directly perceive relationships.
Most of us readily accept that “we can not dispute taste.” But we are very far from accepting that, similarly, we can’t dispute what people hold to be true, either. If nothing else, this perspective lets us see why pluralism is an acceptable, and indeed necessary, contemporary attitude. De veritas, non disputandum.
In any case, so what if we can see parts and wholes but not relationships? From an evolutionary perspective, the Thinking and Feeling functions of consciousness are thought to be later developments than Sensation and Intuition (which functions it’s understood we share with pre-human animals). With the emergence of the synergy perspectives, we would seem to be not only witnessing first hand, but indeed experiencing within ourselves, a newly emerging aspect of consciousness. I.e., We have first hand experiential evidence of the evolution of consciousness.
My point is that whether my thoughts about the Thinking function are right or not, the emphasis of synergy on cooperative relationships seems to be, in itself, a further evolution of human awareness. And, in this sense, consciousness of synergy really is a very big step away from the rationalism of the patriarchal worldview, which so neglects (and indeed suppresses) of the Feeling function.
We not only can know by inner experience that the universe is evolving but also that, as personal centers of consciousness, we humans are at the creative heart of it. The book by Mary Coelho, Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood, is precisely about this dawning emergence of our understanding of the central place of ‘person’ in cosmic evolution. We are well on our way to fulfilling the task Bishop Kallistos spelled out so clearly.
The immense transition also has a third important aspect. It’s not only movement from a static to a dynamic cosmos and from the suppression of the image of person to recognition of our central participatory role in the cosmic process. The immense transition also includes movement from a dualistic understanding of God to a non-dual or unitive sense of the divine mystery.
When Corning says synergy is “a fundamental property of the universe and of human societies” [italics added], it’s clear that he intends no dualism between nature and culture: the synergy perspective moves us well beyond the patriarchal alienation of anthropos from cosmos. And it is equally clear, when Corning makes the point that synergy is the creative source of the world’s evolution, that it sees no dualism between the creative mystery we call theos and the manifest world of anthropos at the heart of cosmos.
Synergy offers us a worldview that is just the opposite of patriarchal dualism. Corning describes synergy as “the wellspring of creativity which makes evolution happen.” In older (if, alas, still unfamiliar) language, that same thought would sound something like, “Synergy is the manifestation of eternal wisdom.” Synergy is nothing less than the inner wisdom of God, the divine Sophia, manifesting in the workings of the universe. The early 20th century Russian Sophiologist, Sergius Bulgakov, even uses the same word, synergy, when he talks about the results of what he calls Bogochelovechestvo, the cooperative inter-action of the world and God.
A fascinating aspect of Corning’s book is its emphasis on economics (“in a broad sense,” as he says) with regard to how the world works, and Bulgakov began his career as an economist.
Corning’s economic perspective is that the “payoff” of synergy at the biological and anthropological level is “simply” those results which contribute to life’s on-going survival and reproduction. This is a radical change from the patriarchal perspective. It puts fairness and cooperation, rather than competition and violence, at the center of human life and cultural evolution. It’s no small thing to recognize that what causes evolution to happen on the biological level is “simply” life itself working at keeping itself going. It’s even more significant to see that this understanding of synergy-- as yielding an economic payoff-- is valid at the cultural level as well.
Life makes use of the helpful new things that result when at one level things join together to become parts of a more complex new thing at the next level. And what promotes the on-going survival of human life is nothing other than cooperation. What a positive outlook! And, in our troubled times, what an extremely hopeful one! As I mentioned in the review, the synergy perspective provides us with a straightforward ethics and morality, a way to be human based on the clearly observable fact that what succeeds is cooperation: on how the universe works.
So, here we have a “rationally-based norm for human life in an evolutionary world: cooperation rather than competition, creativity rather than conventionality, awe and wonder rather than dullness and boredom.” But also-- and especially-- a non-dualistic and participatory (person-centered) understanding of the workings of the world. This is realistic and down-to-earth view couldn’t be more different from those of competition and alienation on which patriarchy is based.
I have a half-dozen or so other thoughts about Nature’s Magic which I need to mention. I don’t know how to put them into any meaningful sequence.
1. While it results from the serious study of the scientific worldview of the last few centuries, the synergy perspective would seem to be a validation of the intuitive wisdom of Israel and early Christianity (and also of India). The emergence of the synergy perspective is the beginnings of a rational understanding, from the “science of history,” of the intuitions of those ancient cultures about “how the world works.” That’s real progress.
2. The whole idea of creativity is much clearer from the synergy perspective. We humans create, in a literal sense. By our cooperative interaction with others, increased complexity allows newness to emerge.
At its deepest level, this creative newness seems to me to be what Meister Eckhart meant when he talked about “releasement” (sometimes translated as “waiting”). Eckhart’s understanding seems to be an intuitive sense of the synergy process precisely in its aspect of allowing newness to emerge via the cooperative synergy of anthropos and theos.
To put it in obviously inadequate language, our cooperative inter-action with God (via Eckhart’s “waiting”) allows what’s in the divine unconscious to seep out (leak out, be released) into the world.
3. With regard specifically to Christianity, the evolutionary-synergy perspective allows us a deeper understanding of traditional ecclesiology and eschatology. If synergy is the creative source of the dynamic evolutionary universe, and if the relationships between things is that out of which newness emerges, then relationship is the very essence of cosmic creativity: the world creates itself, precisely by forming relationships. If human persons are that world become conscious of itself and, now, with the synergy perspective, we see ourselves as the world become conscious of itself as self-creative, then ecclesia would seem to be a name for that segment of humanity that is aware of humanity’s central self-creative role in the cosmos.
4. The evolutionary-synergy perspective also opens up once again the long-neglected area of eschatology. Thomas Berry names the ultimate goals of the universe to be “differentiation, subjectivity and communion.”
In response to a question about these abstract terms, Brian Swimme said once in a note that the ideas are Teilhard’s, although the terms themselves are Berry’s. The synergy perspective offers us a much less abstract but still conceptual expression of the ultimate eschaton: something like “the on-going cooperative relationships between (uniquely differentiated) persons.” Swimme expands on Berry’s terms nicely: “the fullness of differentiation, the deepest subjectivity and the most intimate communion.” Personally, I like Bruno’s Teilhardian phrase even better, “eucharistic omega.” But, in any case, being able to talk about the eschaton in terms of creative personal relationships in an evolutionary cosmos is a delight. And it makes clear, as nothing else I know does, the traditional understanding of the ecclesia as already the beginnings of the eschaton.
5. Thomas Berry repeatedly describes patriarchal culture as being under a spell with regard to its alienation from the natural world. One of the best things about Corning’s work is that it makes clear how we can break the spell. The means by which we can step out of the patriarchal prison is nothing other than our awe and wonder at synergy’s magic. We need only look and see the real world as it is, see that we are active participants in the creative evolutionary process, to replace patriarchal dualism’s feelings of anger and rage at not being wanted by Mother Earth.
6. Personally, it’s a delight for me to realize that helping others experience that awe and wonder at the natural world is the essential task of the shamanic personality. I find the understanding of complexity and synergy to be a profoundly liberating and validating affirmation of my life-long focus on both science (nature, evolution) and religion (spirituality, shamanism).
7. Finally, a thought that keeps impinging on me is that while the focus on cosmic evolution is a tremendous breakthrough for human culture, these synergy perspectives of the New Cosmology need artistic expression. Science education is obviously essential; so is a serious understanding of the nature of religious ritual (although that would seem to be still a long time coming). But the invitation to awe and wonder seems to require something else, something “earlier” or prior to such things. I’m thinking especially in terms of fiction. Since I retired, I’ve been reading several contemporary works of fiction weekly; that’s hundreds of books in the last four years. Not once did I ever see a reference to humanity’s creative role in cosmic evolution. I wish I could write a novel.