Saturday, October 20, 2012

Integral Thought

I've talked on here before about why I feel that science and spirituality must (and will) be reunited at some point in some way, but I was reminded of this issue recently by a Christian friend's Facebook post about a non-believer doctor who had a near death experience and came out with a more open mind on such things. I agreed with the general thrust of the argument he made. Science as it stands is, well, absurd, just as much as spirituality as it stands is often vague, ungrounded, and even willfully ignorant. Neither truly satisfy.

I want to explain why I call science absurd, because in general I know that science is the most powerful, accurate mode of exploring our physical reality. In fact, it is not truly science I have ever had an issue with, it is the materialist philosophy underlying it. The issue is that it says things like, the universe sprang from nothing. This is like saying heat comes from cold, or consciousness from unconsciousness (it says those things as well). But, cold is an absence of heat, or maybe more accurately, a form of heat, a negative measure or sense of heat. Likewise, nothing is a negative sense of something. That is, you can have the nonexistence of a particular thing, but you cannot have nothing absolutely. If you had nothingness, you clearly have something; the only way to have nothing is to not have it. It's all just playing with words at this point, the same way I can say "a square circle;" just because the words can be lined up or uttered doesn't mean that they have any sense or reality to them.

Then, take evolution. For the majority of those who don't believe in evolution, it seems the major deal-breaker is the evolution of man. They can, theoretically, if perhaps a bit uncomfortably, accept that animals, plants, and bacteria evolve, but, they say, what about the human soul? That requires special creation. I actually somewhat agree, in a qualified sense that I will elaborate presently. I see the word "soul" and think "consciousness, mind, self." And, when I think about it, how can human consciousness spring from non-consciousness? See, I could agree with the blind, stupid universe of materialist science if humans (and some animals, let's be honest) did not have consciousness and self awareness. It is theoretically possible that such a universe bumped itself randomly into atoms, stars, galaxies and life. 

But, consciousness exists, and therefore, I call bullshit on that idea. Because no one can figure out or even understand how meaning can come from non-meaning, how awareness could grow from non-awareness. The great mystery of how brain cells' electrochemical reactions somehow result in thought and feeling. And not mere thought or feeling, but the self-awareness of such. How does this arise through the evolution of an inherently unconscious world? Where did it come from, and how does it relate to that unconscious world?

The only solution that I see that is both subjectively and objectively acceptable is to grant consciousness to all existence, from the atoms to the galactic superclusters. It has been there from the beginning. At least on a basic, rudimentary level. The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts this in terms of the Within and the Without of things, and based a rather marvelous philosophy on the notion. Everything has an objective existence (that which is studied by science), but also, a subjective, inner sense. They are two perspectives, or properties, of existence. I might put it this way: philosophers talk of "extension" as that property of a thing existing in physical space, extended into space. So here, extension is lined with or enfolded with intention. I don't know if that is a perfectly accurate pair of opposites, but I kind of like how it sounds.  

One way of understanding how this would work is to see the following. You, to your own experience, know yourself to be a subjective being, a soul if you will, a center of experience, meaning, and understanding, and, ultimately, consciousness. You look at me and see an object, a thing beheld within your conscious awareness-- yet you also have no problem granting to me that I too am a subjective being, that I am a center of awareness as well (unless you are a solipsist), just as you accept your own objective physical reality as perceived by me. I am suggesting that we can simply extend that notion to all the universe. 

This helps explain where consciousness came from. The universe, from it's formation, has been gaining in complexity (at least in scattered areas, since as a whole it is winding down through entropy). From simple atoms, to more complex atoms, to molecules and chemical bonding, to complex organic chemistry, to life, ecology, and so on. With each rise in complexity, there is less of the universe involved (far more atoms than molecules, far more organisms than ecological systems); i.e., the scope is narrower. But each level up is a gain in the depth of consciousness. 
Teilhard talks of an interdependent energy between the Within and the Without; he believes that this energy is "psychic" in nature, but that it is divided into two distinct components: a tangential energy and a radial energy. Teilhard believes that tangential energy "links an element with all others of the same order." Radial energy draws an element towards "ever greater complexity and centricity," which for Teilhard means spiritual perfection. (from the above link)
You can begin to see the facility of the idea. The universe is not entirely random. Not that the Within of things is highly conscious like the human mind. An atom isn't "thinking" about how to join with another atom, or wishing it could find one to join with. A bacteria isn't "thinking" about how to adapt to the antibiotics it has encountered. But there is a leaning in a direction, towards survival, towards greater complexity. The leaning is sort of an inward intelligence in the basic way it might make a gain. 

Robert Pirsig wrote in Lila about how for any scientific problem, an infinite number of hypotheses exist; yet, we don't waste time testing all of them, we have a sense of what ones are most likely. It isn't random computation. Consider a computer. If it were hungry, it would first try chewing on the refrigerator door, then the table, then it's own hand... finally it would hit on "sandwich" and be satisfied. This is because it is not designed to think, but to compute quickly. It would do it quickly, but it would still have to try every possibility. Human minds don't go through everything in the kitchen; we bypass 99% of what's around and go straight for food. In computational speed computers are better, but the human brain is far more efficient, because it can truly think.

This helps us understand evolution. Originally evolution was thought to be a long, gradual change over endless eons. But further understanding shows that often species changed very rapidly, in terms of punctuated equilibrium. This makes sense, since things evolve to maintain a fit with the world in which they live, and out there, things can move fast. The climate doesn't take millions of years to shift, it can happen in a few hundred or thousand years. Some changes happen much, much faster (the antibiotic threat to becteria, for example, or pesticides to insects). But how can random mutations occur fast enough to keep up? 

Maybe there is an inner sense about which way to evolve, which genes to swap around. A sort of sensing which way the environment is changing, and an inward push in that direction. I don't see this as some objective god directing evolution. I think of it as being the same way I encounter my world: I see what's there, what's needed, and my own desire pushes me in the direction of the right sorts of changes. It's not evolution by a higher law, but by an inner creativity and sense of discovery. 

And maybe this is the effort of the entire universe. An evolution not as being akin to building an edifice, with continual embellishments continually added to the basic edifice, but more as an organic unfolding, where all that you will find in the final flower was present in the original bud. Creation not as a momentary act of an outside agent, but an ongoing creative transformation, evolution united with involution. The birth of a mind that then goes on to discover a universe that it makes even as it discovers it (as we, every night, discover a world even as we dream it). Maybe the DNA has a level of intelligence, maybe everything does; maybe the animists were right all along, spirit resides in all things. 

(anyone interested in this stuff might enjoy reading: de Chardin's Phenomenon of Man, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and his less well known Lila, Alan Watt's Supreme Identity, Fritjov Capra's Tao of Physics, and Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything and other works. Wilber is worth mentioning especially because of his work in "integral thought," which I guess is what this post is all about.)

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