Commentary 52 (to Patlavskiy)
RELIGION AS ATTRACTOR, PROCESS, AND BIOLOGY
20 September 2009, posted 26 September 2009
[This article was published in World Futures - Paragraph numbers added for ease of discussion -HFJM]
Science and religion contend for the world’s allegiance. Scientists are bewildered by people’s acceptance of some seemingly irrational values and judgments endorsed by religion. They argue strenuously with people about the common good and systemic consequences of actions, but are trumped by religious nostrums. Why?
Science and religion both arise from our bewilderment with the complexity of our lives. At their roots they are vital, necessary, liberating, and complementary processes. So, why the perceived conflict?
Experiences of universal unity arise naturally in deep meditative states. What does this recently demonstrated biological fact tell us about our tendencies to religious belief?
Keywords: Attractors, Expectations, Belief Systems, Orthodoxies, Biology of Belief
Religion as a Static, Indomitable Attractor
There are many threads of thought that try to explain the origin and social force of religion. Some of them are:
* Derivation from expectations – Luhmann
* Derivation from awe-inspiring events – Durkheim, Habermas, and others
* Experiences of connectedness and transcendence
Derivation from Expectations
Expectations of some sort are essential to our continued existence. Without them, we could not move with confidence and success into our future. Even loosely reproducing, non-living chemical polymers use an elemental form of expectation. Stuart Kauffman holds that polymers create models of one another in an attempt to predict one another’s behavior (cf. 1993, p.388 ff.).
Niklas Luhmann shows how human societies are built upon expectations. We project a tentative outcome, act on it, and assess the results. With inanimate objects, this process yields mechanical results: “stones fall,” “light things are easily moved.” With non-human living things, the process yields generally consistent results: “plants grow,” or “dogs can be good pets.” When two humans try to predict each other’s behavior, however, the situation gets complicated.
This situation in which ego tries to model its behavior on the basis of what alter will do and alter tries to do the same in reverse is called the situation of double contingency. In this situation, ego and alter are dependent on each other to satisfy their self-determined needs, but are unable to depend on (cannot determine) each other’s actions. Should they meet as utterly uncivilized in a primordial forest, they would test each other with gestures, feints, and action and be frustrated in their attempts to predict each other’s responses. In this frustration, ego would realize that alter is free and even intelligent. With this realization, would also come ego’s awareness that ego itself is free and intelligent. Alter would come to the same awareness. This is the archetypal realization in which ego and alter become persons. In other words, ego and alter create each other as persons endowed with freedom and intelligence as the basic social structure in which they generate expectations about each other.
With the progress of civilization, persons differentiate roles for each other. Later on, they develop programs, which are complexes of conditions “for the correctness (and thus the social acceptability) of behavior” (1995, p. 317). Still later, they generate social structures of higher abstraction called values, which are “general, individually symbolized perspectives which allow one to prefer certain states or events. [They serve] as a kind of probe with which one can test whether more concrete expectations are also at work” (1995, p.317).
These four levels of abstraction (person, role, program, and value) provide a graduated scale for assessing the expectations that are put on human behavior. They enlarge the range of expectations that we can safely have in the social arena by allowing us to function together without requiring conformity to one another.
We progress by increasing our levels of acceptable insecurity. In this process, we develop cognitive and normative methods for dealing with disappointment. These methods allow us to anticipate how we will behave if we are disappointed, using the question, should I “give up the expectation, change it, or not”? (p. 320). In Luhmann’s lexicon, “expectations that are willing to learn are stylize as cognitions,[and] expectations not disposed toward learning [are] norms” (p. 321).
Religion lies firmly in the field of norms not only in the sense of moral rightness, but also in the sense of correct thoughts. In that sense, it is opposed to science, which functions best in the field of cognitions.
Derivation from Awe-Inspiring Events
Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto pioneered the scientific study of religion especially its origins in awe-inspiring events. Emile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead expanded on this theme. Jurgen Habermas reconstructs Durkheim’s theory of the sacred derivation of rules (cf. 1989, pp. 48-55) as follows:
In the early days of human evolution, primates existed in a mostly continuous web with their surroundings. They had only signals and a simple symbolic communication system that had not yet progressed to language. The first symbols were used to point to awesome occurrences like the frightening appearance of a cave bear or the birth of a child. Eventually, the symbol for bear-appearing would encompass the bear itself, the fright experienced by the primates, the defenses used to fend off the bear, the sacred relics (claws, teeth, skin) of slain bears, the pride of the tribe in its mastery of its fear, its reverence for the might of the bear, and its ritual re-enactments of historic encounters with bears (cf. Bausch, 2001, p. 77).
In these ways, symbols for totem and natural events produce group solidarity through a social structure based on communication. Equi-primordially with the symbols, and practically equivalent to them, are the rituals that accompany the use of symbols. These rituals re-enact how the symbols are to be understood. In this way, rituals encode rules for understanding and lay the groundwork for further communicative action. In the course of human evolution, this primitive understanding of symbols and rituals developed into myths, religion, theology, philosophy, science, and even post-modernism, but the mythic power of religion retains its emotional force.
Rituals and their accompanying symbols refer back to the foundational time of a tribe. They express how a tribe was put together. The rules of ritual and religion have force because they express the foundations of a tribe’s existence.
Experiences of Connectedness and Transcendence
Here are examples of some ordinary and extraordinary experiences of connectedness and transcendence:
* The support of family and friends
* The mutuality of lovers
* Altruism lavished on offspring
* The kindness of strangers.
* Unexplained awareness at-a-distance of the travail of loved ones
* Experiences of unity with all things
Experiences such as these psychologically require support and explanation, which most people find in the structures of religion. In this realm, religion is more open to explaining experience than is science. To open itself up to normal connectedness and transcendence, science can revise its epistemology to go beyond the “objectivity” of the scientific method. The criteria of validity would then include not just coherence, compatibility with empirical results, openness to test, and ability to predict results. They would also include (cf. Bausch, 2001, p.386) truthfulness and rightness (Habermas), respect for alter’s freedom, intelligence, and personhood (Luhmann), positioning on the edge of chaos (Kauffman), maintaining a balance between circularity and dialogue (Goertzel), stewardship of the environment and of future generations (Churchman, Laszlo et al), comprehensiveness in obtaining input of all the stakeholders in a situation (Critical Systems Design).
To consider extraordinary experiences of unity, science can thoroughly investigate things like variations in functioning of fore and aft brain functioning (cf. Newberg and D’Aquili, 2001). Regarding ESP, scientists can improve their openness by humbly conceding the solid evidence for its existence in some situations. Then they can document extraordinary happenings in measured terms and work to understand how they happen.
Religion appeals to our highest yearnings for truth, beauty, greatness, community, oneness, and service. World traditions are replete with stories of heroic pursuits, art, philosophy, and philanthropy inspired by religion. Religions tap our innate idealism.
Both science and religion profess to offer us a secure reality on which we can build our lives. Where science requires concentrated study and measured differentiations, religion offers simple, emotionally satisfying solutions to life’s problems. Science abhors emotion and messy life situations that do not fit its methodology. Religion messes with the mess. It also offers compelling stories and a community of support that science cannot match.
Drawbacks of Religion
Religion often perverts our need for self-esteem into a “we are better than they are,” chosen few mentality with its concomitant zealotry and violence. Religious leaders often manipulate our need for community and security to make us buy into the proposition that: you can have salvation if “you believe as we do and do what we say,” thus relieving us of both intellectual curiosity and a large part of our dignity.
Perhaps because of their millennial histories and mythic forbears, religions offer food for the whole person that upstart science cannot match. They offer deep poetry in myth, rituals, and art that enriches our emotional and vital depths. Until science develops a similar holistic approach, it will not provide a dynamic attractor that can win over the vast bulk of humanity. Religion will be indomitable. The hope for a universally appealing attractor lies in a softening of ideological positions on the part of religion and science.
Science and Religion as Social Processes
If we define belief as “a mental process which, in some regard, gives other mental processes ‘the benefit of the doubt’” (Goertzel 1994, p.166), then science and religion are both systems of belief. Each of them is “a group of beliefs which mutually support one another, in the sense that an increased degree of belief in one of the member beliefs will generally lead to increased degrees of belief in most other member beliefs” (ibid, p. 167). Within a belief system, fragmentary beliefs are not tested on an individual basis. They fit into a system of belief in some way or else they are discarded.
For example, we give the results of double-blind experiments belief because they fit within our generally accepted scientific method. In religion, we might accept miracles because of a culture of deep reverence for a providential deity. In other words, if something fits within our worldview, we accept it. If it does not, we ignore or reject it.
In this regard, belief is a variety of expectation in Luhmann’s lexicon and belief systems work as individual and social cognitive maps. Belief systems contain patterns of mental processes that support one another. They are attractors that screen incoming information, accepting and integrating some of it while ignoring or rejecting other parts of it.
In order to serve the needs of individuals and groups, belief systems need to be both consistent and adaptable; tradition needs to be balanced with innovation. In the language of Piaget, people need to both assimilate and accommodate information. Assimilation involves interpreting new experiences in terms of existing mental structures without changing them. Accommodation involves changing existing mental structures to explain new experiences (Piaget, 1932).
This raises the question: are the major religious traditions alive? If they are really as inflexible as they seem to be, one can argue that they are dead. Yet they have enormous influence in society. How can we account for this vitality?
In order to survive, social processes have to retain consistency as they continually reproduce themselves. In so doing, they provide a sense of security that orients us to nature and to each other. Orthodoxy in these social processes arises from the exaggerated pursuit of security that turns vital processes into rigid, closed structures.
Orthodox (mainstream) science manifests its rigidity by insisting on reductionist methods, especially in its denial of any “reality” that does not fit its Procrustean-bed methodology. Orthodox (mainstream) religion is rigid in its maintenance of beliefs that run contrary to good science and human welfare. Orthodoxies like these mechanically reproduce themselves and thus survive. Their strength is not being replenished, however. They retain relevance only on the basis of extensive integrated structures that derive from their vital generative years.
Consistency in their continual self-reproduction is not the only requirement that social processes need to thrive or even to survive in the long run. Social processes also have to be open to, and integrative of, new experiences. If belief systems fail either of these test, they will not long survive.
Science, religion, and other social processes are vital to humans surviving and thriving when they maintain both circularity and openness. When they shrink to mechanical self-reproduction without openness to environmental diversity, however, they shrink societies and individuals into straightjackets of conformity, which curtail their thriving and imperil their survival.
Rigid orthodoxy will eventually kill any ongoing process, including us as persons, with the curse of inflexibility. A mechanical self-reproducing process, such as a stone rolling down a hill, will eventually come upon a situation where it bumps, grinds, or slows to a stop. Mechanical processes lack flexibility. A living process on the other hand, take a rabbit hopping down a hill, avoids obstacles, grazes on its surroundings, and generates its own locomotion.
Regarding religion in particular, as it taps into our connectedness and transcendence, it is healthy. As it provides us a practical security for constructive living, it is healthy. As it combines openness to self-transcendence and solid coherence, it is wonderful.
As religion lapses into rigid orthodoxies and bureaucracies, however, it compromises its usefulness. It then infects healthy transcendent human aspirations with toxins of self-righteousness, dictatorial authority, and self-demeaning “sheep” behavior. Rigid religious orthodoxy imposes a dominator model upon our most beautiful human aspirations. For it, the Latin phrase holds: corruptio optimi, pessima.
In fairness, it should be noted that a religion that does not consistently reproduce its beliefs also corrupts our highest aspirations. Such a feckless religion offers no guidance, no security, and only sporadic, if passionate, experiences of connectedness and transcendence. Such a religion relates to the real thing in the manner that recurring acid trips relate to caring, responsible living.
Regarding religious relation to “God,” I believe there are good psychological and social reasons for the apperception of God. I also believe that our linguistic attempts to talk about God, while understandable and even necessary are futile and potentially dangerous. They are futile because, as Nicholas of Cusa (14th century) demonstrated with his negative theology, anything we say about God is fragmentary and contradictory of other things that we can say about him/her/it. Statements that are developed by formal logic from such meaningless statements are doubly meaningless and false. Such meaningless and false talk is the mainstay of rigid religious dogma, morality, and governance.
Such false talk about God is dangerous because it limits our awe and our ability to connect with each other and to transcend our embodied situations. It is more dangerous as it generates divisiveness and hostility between one faction professing one kind of false God talk and another professing a different false talk.
There seems to be a universality of wholesome religious impulse. There is a caring even altruistic impulse evident in many species including our own. There is evidence from brain scans that experiences of universal oneness occur naturally during meditation. Anthropological evidence supports the opinion that all human societies, even cultures of reductionistic science, hold to some transcendent beliefs. A belief in some kind of ineffable oneness is a most comfortable (almost incontrovertible) feeling.
The Biology of Belief
In Why God Won’t Go Away, Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili establish a biology of belief in which mystical and transcendent states are natural states whose occurrences are observable and measurable in brain activity. In brief, they show that the brain withdraws blood circulation (attention) from lobes and areas of the brain that fix it as a self in space and time when people engage in deep meditation. This withdrawal generates an experience of oneness in which space, time, and self are not in play. The authors proceed step-by-step through brain machinery and brain architecture to myth-making, ritual, mysticism, and the origin of religions. In the final two chapters, they reflect upon the nature of reality and the realness of transcendent reality.
Science/Religion Rapprochement in Static Terms
The authors are careful scholars and persuasive advocates who have articulated important scientific insights into the nature of transcendent experiences. Scientific endeavors have always had an opening to transcendence as evidenced by accounts of scientific study reported by Descartes, Newman, Poincare, etc. It now has a new opening to transcendence in the research reported by Newberg and D’Aquili. This research opens the way for a positive rapprochement between materialistic science and disciplined research on transcendent experience.
The authors make progress toward such a rapprochement on a basic level. They point out that transcendent experiences stamp religious beliefs with the seal of authenticity. The experiences themselves are ineffable, but they are described as contact with the divine, immersion into the whole, a state of no-thingness. Believers, when they experience transcendent states, find justification for their own cultural beliefs. In this way, transcendent experiences justify all deep religious beliefs while not justifying any one of them agains another. Transcendent experience is the deep root of religion that exists before the emergence of any particular religion.
The authors fail, in my estimation, to reach much more in the way of rapprochement. In discussing the role of metaphor in theology and science, they stress the role of metaphors, such as a personal God, as reifications of otherwise ineffable experience. They also correctly identify scientific language as an elaborate metaphor for expressing our relationship to the material world. Using this equivocated sense of metaphor they fallaciously equate the truth of religious expressions to the truth of scientific ones. Such slippery logic does not build confidence and intellectual cooperation. In general, the epistemology of material and spiritual assertions is not essayed in this book. The sole criterion for truth proposed is a persistent feeling of authenticity.
On a more substantive issue, they conclude that human beings of all places and times have experiences of Absolute Unitary Being. They believe that
The neurological roots of spiritual transcendence show that Absolute Unitary Being is a plausible, even probable possibility…[And] the realness of Absolute Unitary Being is not conclusive proof that a higher God exists, but it makes a strong case that there is more to human existence than sheer material existence (pp. 171-172).
This statement is grounded in old static metaphysics. It portrays Absolute Unitary Being [AUB] as static and reifies it into a permanent thing that we might visit in contemplation or ritual.
Mystic Experiences and Life in the Exodus
In a process perspective, the experience of absolute unitary being is a happening in which we participate. We do want to reflect on the meaning of that experience, but we must refrain from calling it a thing, which it isn’t (and AUB isn’t either). Reifying AUB “mystifies” it (in the pejorative sense). In reifying the experience we posit a world divorced from the material world that cannot be talked about except in poetry. We then assume that we can merge into an absolute Oneness. What kind of unity is an undifferentiated whole? Is it more unified that a differentiated whole? Is a blank stare, for example, more unified than the Gettysburg Address?
A phenomenology of religious experience is needed to give some precision to the experiences that arise in the neurobiology described by Newberg and D’Aquili. We enter varieties and degrees of these experiences in our daily lives (sleep, dreams, daydreams, flashes of insight, etc.). These experiences, when they are working properly, refresh us and inspire us to embody our better nature in our lives. They are interspersed with our “waking” (externally directed) awareness in ever-recurring cycles.
Hilaire Valiquette locates these cycles in the architecture of the Exodus, wherein the Jews left Egypt, passed through the Reed Sea, built tents in Sinai, received the Law from the mountain, reconstituted themselves as a people, and crossed the Jordan to enter Canaan.
This Exodus experience is portrayed as follows:
^^^^^^^^ ^ ^ ^ ^ / \ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^^^^^^^^ ^ ^ ^ ^
Reed Sea Tents Mt. Sinai Tents Jordan Canaan
Chaos Rebuilding Emergence Rebuilding Chaos Rebuilding
(Adapted from Valiquette)
The waters and the mountain were disruptive, transcending experiences. The tents are experiences of grounding and constructing social reality. Valiquette’s architecture fits our recurring episodes of destroying-transcending ourselves intermixed with experiences of grounding.
Experiencing transcendence then is not some superhuman feat that requires the skills of a Christian mystic, a fakir, a Buddhist monk, a Zen Master, or a Sufi. We transcend ourselves continually in everyday events such as leaps of intuition.
I will describe the interior phenomenology of transcendent experience, as I know it. I believe that my explanation can be corroborated from extant literature. My periods of reflection involve several levels of withdrawal from attention to the external world. At the far end, sometimes when I blank out, I may be nodding off. At other times, I have extended periods of unfocused attention that could be interpreted as experiences of undifferentiated unity. These experiences center me and often spark creative activity.
More often, I allow ideas to flit around in my mind without trying to control them. I interpret this as my watching some activity of my unconscious mind that is sorting ideas to match some situation that I find myself in. I find that this kind of reverie is very useful in finding solutions that escape rational conscious effort.
There are reports in the literature of ideas that seem to be hanging in the air almost as part of a Zeitgeist. The independent discovery of the infinitesimal calculus by Newton and Leibnitz is a famous example. In my experience I find that my ideas and matching ideas of others arise in the same time frame. Is there any grounded scientific theory that can explain such synchronicity?
There is one. Ervin Laszlo and Karl Pribram advance it, as do some others. Laszlo argues persuasively that chance alone cannot explain the evolution of our world, as we know it, in the narrow time frame of 9 billion years since the Big Bang. Without some minimal (material) memory that prevents advances from immediately reverting to less differentiated states, there would be no progressive evolution.
Laszlo’s speculations indicate that this memory works in the deep-space Zero-Point Field as a holographic mechanism connecting activities that work on similar frequencies. A mechanism such as this would explain synchronicities and other psychic events that are presently anomalies.
In the understanding of reality proposed here, our transcendent experiences are continuations of a universe-long process of material/spiritual reflection. This understanding has the promise and possibility of unifying material and spiritual reflection.
Bausch, K. (2001) The emerging consensus in social systems theory. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Press.
Churchman, C.W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies. New York: Basic Books.
Goertzel, B. (1994). Chaotic logic: Language, thought, and reality from the perspective of complex systems science. New York: Plenum Press.
Habermas, J. (1989). The theory of communicative action, volume two: Lifeworld and system. (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1981).
Kauffman, S.A. (1993). The origins of order: Self-organization and selection in evolution. New York: Oxford University Press.
Laszlo, E. (1995). The interconnected universe. New Jersey: World Scientific.
Laszlo, E. and Masulli I. (1993). The evolution of cognitive maps. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach.
Luhmann, N. (1995). Social systems. (J. Bednarz & D. Baecker, Trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press. (Original work published 1984).
Newberg, A. and D’Aquili, E. (2001). Why God won’t go away. New York: Ballantine.
Valiquette, H.P. (1999). Exodus – Deuteronomy as discourse: Models, distancing, provocation, paraenesis. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 85, pp.47-70.
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