Monthly Archives: April 2016

Where Have We Got To? : A Summary of The Blog So Far – Evolution and Science

Today’s Post

For he past several weeks we have explored a ‘secular’ definition of religion from the perspectives of the human person’s understanding, evolving, acting, belonging, sense of transcendence and stability.

The fourth and final phase will address ‘reinterpretation’ of our Western religious teachings in the light of the first three phases:

Evolution, as understood by Teilhard

Science as an objective understanding of reality

Religion as seen as an agent in human evolution.

This week we will pause in pursuit of a “Secular God” to summarize what we have said in the first two of these three phases.

Evolution (October 2014 – May 2015)

In this segment, we saw how Teilhard’s unique approach to evolution opens a new door to not only understanding the basic forces at work in the unfolding of the entire universe, but understanding how God can be seen as active in them.

Teilhard simply notes that science has come to understand that a thread can be seen as rising through the process of evolution:

–          The connections of entities at each stage can result in more complex entities at the     next

–          The more complex entities which result are capable of more complex connections

–          Hence a key thread of evolution can be seen in this advancement of the complexity of entities and the energy which unites them

A key example of this dynamic can be seen in connections between simpler entities, such as electrons, the groupings of which result in the more complex atom.  As in the case of atoms, the new entities at each stage of evolution contain the potential of effecting an increased complexity of the results of the unions produced at the previous stage.

Teilhard sees this as intuitively obvious, since if any stage did not have the potential for increased complexity (for example, if electrons could not have evolved into atoms), evolution would have come to a full stop billions of years ago.  (Nov 29-Dec 11, 2014: The Teilhardian Shift)

Further, Teilhard notes that this phenomenon of ‘increasing complexity’ occurs in all three of the stages of universal evolution acknowledged by science: ‘pre-life’, ‘life’, and ‘human life’.  He sees this phenomenon as a ‘thread’ which unites all three stages, and hence is the underlying principle at work in the evolution of the universe.

Teilhard offers a perspective on the universe in which the human person is neither afterthought, accident nor supernaturally inserted.  Emerging through a natural process which began at science’s ‘Big Bang’, he is the latest manifestation of this thread of ‘increasing complexity’.

The human person is deeply rooted in cosmic reality. 

Teilhard notes that as the human person emerges as the latest product of this long process of increasing complexity, the fundamental spiral of ‘more complex entities’ united by ‘higher levels of energy’ now manifests itself in the appearance of human entities united by the energies of love.  (May 14, 28:  Love as the Energy of Continued Human Evolution)

Once the phenomenon of ‘increasing complexity’ is recognized as the basic principle of evolution, the door is opened to a ‘Secular’ aspect of the ground of being, to “God”.  (Jan 22- April 20, 2015: Looking at Evolution)

Science (June 2015 to August, 2015)

In this second segment, we explored many of the findings of science, particularly the Standard Model of Physics.  We saw how the Cosmological Constants illustrate how the forces described in the Standard Model must have certain relationships to be able to effect the evolution of matter toward the increasingly complex states initially identified by Physics and Chemistry. (June 11 – 23 July: The Framing of the Universe)

We than saw how this increasing complexity continues in living things as expressed in the theory of ‘Natural Selection’.

We also saw that as excellent as are the theories expressed in the Standard Model and Natural Selection, they fail to address the underlying phenomenon of increasing complexity.  As a result, the scientific understanding of consciousness, and particularly human consciousness, is without context and is therefore incomplete.

Teilhard sees traditional science as addressing neither ‘the phenomenon of man’ nor his place in the universe.

We saw how Teilhard observed that complexity can be seen to rise through the processes described by Physics, then by Chemistry, then by Natural Selection, then on through human inventions, such as cultural constructions.  This rise is therefore the thread that not only connects the three eras of evolution, but provides the key context for understanding the later emergence of complexity in the form of neurological systems, consciousness and eventually the human person.

In this segment, the action of God can now be understood in the principle of rising complexity, as it completes and unites the family of laws as identified by Science.   Initially, this principle is manifested in the laws of Physics (atoms), later in those of Chemistry (molecules), then in those of Natural Selection (cells), then in Biology (cellular animals), then in mammals with large brains (Neurology).  It becomes more distinct in animals with brains capable of acknowledging their existence (humans).   The conclusion of this segment was that once the principle of rising complexity is understood as active along with those principles acknowledged by science, the evolution from stardust to humans can be put in a single comprehensive context.

Without it, physics is powerless to advance.  With it, the universe advances from pure energy to persons.

With the inclusion of complexity as a principle of universal evolution, the extension of the action of a ‘ground of being’ is transformed from ‘material’ to ‘personal’.   In the words of Teilhard

“..I doubt that whether there is a more decisive moment for a thinking being than when the scales fall from his eyes and he discovers that he is not an isolated unit lost in the cosmic solitudes and realizes that a universal will to live converges and becomes human in him”

This is the basis for a “Secular Side of God”.

The Next Post

Next week I will conclude this summary of the blog with a summary of the third segment:

September, 2015 to March, 2016: Religion

What is Religion? Part 6: Stability, Part 2

Today’s Post

Last week we addressed how the actions of the neocortex brain have played out in the invention and evolution of moral communities that extend the cohesiveness of natural communities (such as families) to the level of society at large, enabling the continuing maturation of civilization.

However, even the most casual read of current events shows that such evolution still has a long way to go.  My suggestion that the key aspect of human evolution can be found in the moderating actions of the neocortex brain must be offset with the observation that such actions can work in the opposite direction.  The reasoning power of the human brain is a two-edged sword.

This week’s post will address this other side of the coin.

Religion and Stability?

With all the turmoil in the middle-East, a very common perspective is that the West is ‘at war’ with the religion of Islam.  Add to this the incivility that exists among the many expressions of Christianity, especially as can be seen in this year’s political tumult, and there is a common opinion that religion itself is a perpetual source of conflict within society.

The ‘New Atheists’, represented by such authors as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are convinced that the future of human evolution requires that the metaphors, mythology and other ‘right brained’, ‘non-scientific’ beliefs of traditional religion become replaced by ‘left brain’, empirical facts which are scientifically and objectively verifiable.  In this way, according to their thinking, the ‘core of violence’ represented by religion can be overcome and the full potential for a mature society can be realized.

While Jonathan Sacks, as summarized last week, points out the unifying and stabilizing aspects of religion in history, he is quick to point out those aspects which work against such noble goals.  While it is clear that humans possess the power to moderate the instinctual stimuli of the lower brains, they also have the capability of using their powers of reason to reinforce such stimuli.

Dualism, Evil and Altruistic Evil

Last week we saw how the influence of religion permitted a bridge between the reciprocal altruism so necessary for the stability of the ‘natural group’ and the trust of strangers so necessary to the stability of the ‘moral group’ which comprises society at large.

Constantly in opposition to this bridge, however, is the dualism that also occurs in this dichotomy between the natural group and the moral group.  ‘We’ are natural members of the natural group, in comfortable relation with our lower brains, but it takes the actions of the neocortex brain in concert with the evolving standards of the culture of our moral group to effect the stability required by civilization.

We are never free of the tendency to see ourselves as ‘we’ and others as ‘they’.  The difficulty of breaking out of this dualism speaks to the concept of ‘evil’ in our lives, and reflects the many aspects of dualism in our ancient beliefs.  Zoroastrianism, for example, saw the universe in perpetual struggle between the god of light and the god of darkness.  Many Greek pantheons reflect this dichotomy, and dualism has even been reflected in the Christian dichotomies of body/soul, this life/the next, God/Satan and perfection/corruption.

While, as Sacks observes, our need for identity and formation of groups may indeed lead to conflict and war, the phenomenon of dualism leads to a deeper level of violence:

“Violence may be possible whenever there is an Us and a Them.  But radical violence emerges only when we see the Us as all-good and the Them as all evil.  That is when altruistic evil is born.”

To get to ‘altruistic evil’, Sacks sees three steps:

  • The ‘other’ must be dehumanized and demonized
  • ‘We” must see ourselves as victims
  • Once the ‘other’ has been demonized and we see ourselves as victims, we can then move on to seeing commission of evil as necessary and justified.

Once the first two steps have been negotiated, the neocortex can finally begin the process of rationalizing the act of evil.  As opposed to being a thoughtful moderation of the instinctual impulses of the reptilian and limbic brains, it has now been co-opted into reinforcing them.

Such reinforcement can actually be pleasurable.  The development of a moral sense in which the neocortex is consistently engaged in the modulation of the stimuli of the lower brains is a learned activity.  The lower brains introduce stimuli (fear, flight/fight) much quicker than the neocortex brain can respond, requiring the discipline of ‘counting to three’ before reacting.  Further, this modulating activity requires an effort.  Being able to rationalize the immediate reaction to the basic stimuli is to ‘remove the leash’, to remove the restrictive step of having to ‘think about the reaction’.

Studies have shown that one of the many efforts necessary to return military combatants to ‘normal’ society involves the reinstatement of this ‘leash’ and the consequent loss of the sense of freedom that came with its absence.

Religion and Duality

Thus, while religion can act as an agent of stabilization in society, bridging the gap between ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ communities by way of learned application of thought to instinct, the human brain is capable of doing the opposite: using thought to reinforce instinct.

The three monotheistic religions insist on a single, personal force at the basis of reality from which all things flow.   By its basic nature, as seeing all things as springing from a single, good source, this belief works against Sacks’ three steps to altruistic evil.  However, even the most casual readings of the three holy books of these religions show traces of the dualism that underlies the three steps.  The observations of the ‘New Atheists’ are not without insight. This speaks powerfully of the underlying ability of the lower brains to affect our lives at the personal and cultural level.

It also reinforces Teilhard’s insights into how human evolution must continue along the ‘axis of complexity’, which in the human is seen as ‘the axis of love’.  In his mind

“The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

The Next Post

Next week I would like to begin wrapping up this segment of the blog with a summary of the first two segments:

October 2014 to May, 2015: Evolution

June 2015 to August, 2015: Science

The post after next will summarize this segment:

September, 2015 to March, 2016: Religion

What is Religion? Part 6: Stability, Part 1

Today’s Post

Thus far we have explored a secular definition of religion, seeing it as

– a way of making sense of things
– a locus for our evolved understanding
– a basis for our acting
– a context for our sense of belonging
– a signpost to transcendence.

While all these aspects of religion contribute to our ongoing evolution as a species and as individual persons, one last venue of activity remains to be addressed, and that is the influence of religion on stabilizing society.

The Neocortex Brain Influence on Human Behavior

All human activities must fall along a fine line between anarchy and monarchy if society is to be stabilized.  We must have enough autonomy to be free to grow and produce, but not so much that our oft-human tendencies toward violence and disruption undermine our personal and cultural edifices.

I have proposed that the key activity of human evolution can be found in the mediating influence of the neocortex brain on the more primitive stimuli of the reptilian (aggression) and limbic (emotion) brains.  At some primitive level, these stimuli are critical to our survival, but they play a lesser role as human society becomes more evolved.

Nothing is more natural to us than the spurt of irritation which can result from social interactions.  As our society becomes more crowded, and the pace of life more hectic and chaotic, our instinctive reaction to the many interactions necessary to conduct our affairs becomes less trustworthy.  That’s where the neocortex can step in.

“Have I really been insulted, impugned, threatened?”  “Is anger the best response?”  “What outcome do I really want from this interaction?”  Holding off an instinctive negative reaction until the neocortex can deal with it is a universally acknowledged sign of maturity.  Using the powers of the neocortex brain to develop and codify cohesive standards of behavior is a universally acknowledged sign of stability in any society

Most of such universal standards of behavior have come about over long periods of cultural evolution captured in and transmitted through religious beliefs and practices.

Survival and Civilization

With insects and lower animals, the individual is lost without the society.  As consciousness raises in the mammals, the uniqueness of the individual also increases, bursting into the issues of belonging, becoming and trusting as played out in human society.  The many mechanisms of civilization are indeed necessary for our survival, but how are they themselves to be managed.?

Religion and Civilization

Robin Dunbar, evolutionary biologist, finds a correlation among species between brain size and the average size of ‘natural’ groups.  Based on this he finds that the optimum human group size to be about 150 persons.  He sees this metric borne out in the first historical stirrings of human groups, in the family, the tribe, the village and the clan.

At these smallest levels, the actions of belonging, becoming and trusting are easier to manage.  As it becomes more necessary for these small groups to federate into a larger state, the problem of ‘cohesion vs aggression’ begins to rise.

As Jonathan Sacks points out in his book, “Not in God’s Name”, the key to belonging to a group is the aspect of common identity.  This common identity assures the ‘reciprocal altruism’ necessary for competition for resources, group defense and the sustainment of culture required to assure that knowledge and wisdom are passed from generation to generation.

On the negative side, it also assures an element of duality in group thinking.  “Common identity” also fosters a sense of ‘we’ in ‘our’ group, against the sense of ‘the others’ in ‘their’ groups.  The ‘reciprocal altruism’ which underpins the cohesiveness of ‘our’ group is not matched by a natural sense of altruism with the ‘other’ groups.  As Sacks points out:

“Reciprocal altruism creates trust between neighbors, people who meet repeatedly and know about one another’s character.  The birth of the city posed a different and much greater problem: how do you establish trust between strangers?

Sacks sees this as a pivotal point in history:  “The point at which culture took over from nature and religion was born”.  In this light, religion can now be seen as a basis for organized social structure:

“Regardless of whether we regard religion as true or false, it clearly has adaptive value because it appeared at the dawn of civilization and has been a central feature of almost every society since.”

By ‘sanctifying the social order’, Sacks finds that “the early religions created moral communities, thus solving the problem of trust between strangers.”  Religion at its base bridges the gap between the altruism practiced in natural groups and the behavior so essential to the interactions among such groups.  As Sacks asserts:

“Religion enters the equation only because it is the most powerful force ever devised for the creation and maintenance of large-scale groups by solving the problem of trust between strangers.”

Next Week’s Post

Today we have seen how the actions of the neocortex brain have played out in the invention and evolution of moral communities that extend the cohesiveness of natural communities to the level of society at large, enabling the continuing evolution of civilization.

That said, however, the dark side of such activity needs to be addressed.  Even the most cursory look at today’s headlines shows the many dimensions of incivility at work in the world today, in which the stability of civilization itself is threatened, and with which religion plays a part.  Next week’s post will address this.