Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Religion, Prophetic Impulse, Genome and Sentient Brain

Richard Alexander wrote “The Biology of Morality” in reaction to concern at the mutually assured destruction of the planet through the apocalyptic confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West over nuclear weapons. The basis of his thesis is that morality is an evolutionary process that arises because societies possessing the capacity to sacrifice personal gains through moral principles better succeed in inter-social competition because they reduce intra-social conflict.

In “The God Gene” Dean Hamer traces the case that religiosity is up to 40% inherited, a trend that is close to estimates for the genetic component of intelligence and eclipses male gayness with only about 14% attributed to the fertile mother effect and 7% to the serial brother effect.

One can see in this a clear echo of the authoritarian aspects of revealed religion as a moral mechanism liable to phalanx societies, in which belief in a Lord and master, from Marduk to al-Llah and Jehovah, also personified in the eschatological Christ, leads to hierarchical control over the social and reproductive process. One very strong trend in religious conviction is belief in a higher power as an act of commitment, regardless of truth or even plausibility, because, in so doing we are committing to an ordered society in which God is on our side, even though the costs may be high in control of women, desecration of nature and totalitarian and often violent means of social control. Inquisition, Crusade, Jihad, and Martyrdom all fall into the violent context, driving the lion’s share of our contemporary apocalyptic violence. Literalism both in the divine word of biblical authority and in the conception of the universe as law bound by an act of God is the bedrock of fundamentalism and its readiness for final violent confrontation - an extrapolation of the biology of morality taken to its lethal contradiction beyond the tipping point of the closing circle.

One of the attributes of god touted by monotheists is that, while iconic deities are idolatrous images, or just features of seasonal fertility, or superstition about the weather, the more abstract god of covenant and the apocalyptic end of days is the real Lord of the universe, not a fantasy of cultural creation.

It is true that apocalyptic consciousness is a real description of our future shock and falling out with nature whose cycle is not yet fully completed and whose implications remain dire for our own future, so the Zoroastrian invention of the end of days purging of ignorance is a prophetic description of our evolving existential dilemma. In a Jungian sense it may have a deep potential reality as an archetypal process in the collective subconscious, whose implications and reverberations we have yet to fully understand.

However the god acting in history is still an angry man at heart. The anthropomorphic features, if not of a white bearded son of man, are certainly of human personality, beset by emotions, from love to anger and particularly jealousy and of severe punishment for infidelity of a morally coercive nature. Adherence to the word as revealed truth is itself a linguistic form of idolatry, as fatal to the claim of true religion as statues of Ishtar, Mary, Jesus and Buddha.

But this isn’t all religion is conveying, nor is it the only aspect of culture to respond to Alexander’s evolutionary dynamics. We can see from the !Kung gods that they also provide sense and sensibility to the universe, recognizing the vulnerability of the mortal coil and offer a compassionate, if often uncompromising, view of our place in the cosmic scheme.

They also provide the spectre of an inner doorway to the deeper mysteries of conscious existence, through prayer, meditation and visionary experience. The !Kung not only have gods, but also participate personally in trance dancing in which the person is carried to the spirit world providing a vehicle to communicate personally with the mysterium tremendum, sometimes using sacraments such as cannabis, rather than second hand through the mouths of the prophets.

The Vedantic tradition of the Upanishads and the central tenets of Buddhist teaching form the basis of an inner path of discovery to the cosmic roots of the mind, described in the Upanishads as the ‘Self’ and denied by Buddha as another illusion of the void within and without, in escaping the circle of life and death into Nirvana. Whether reality and/or illusion the ‘Self’ is the signature of a cosmic dimension to consciousness, in which the inner journey can take us to the point of becoming one with the cosmic mind: “Thou art That”.

This brings us to one of the profoundest mysteries of the integrity of visionary religious experience. People experiencing a flash of enlightenment frequently combine ecstatic emotional exhilaration, or equally intense trepidation, with an overpowering sense of the meaning and significance of what is happening. The experience thus passes the existential acid test – totally fulfilling and overwhelmingly significant. The neuroscientist Ramachandran refers to the part of the cortex between the limbic system and amydala, on the one hand, and the temporal cortex on the other as the ‘god spot’. The amygdala is the organ of emotional dynamics, from fight and flight, through paranoia to ecstasy, joy and fulfillment. The temporal lobe contains our sense of semantic and symphonic significance. Temporal lobe epilepsy can generate profound spiritual and religious feelings, experienced as states of epiphany by the subject. The idea that the brain has also evolved to provide such a complete and compelling subjective experience of psychic redemption raises a host of intriguing questions.

Transformative experiences open new Pandora’s boxes, and so they are generally transgressive to the social and particularly the religious order of the day. Many visionaries are committed as lunatics, whether drunk on their wine, or knowing too much for their own good. Others have lived in seclusion as shaman healers. The prophets were voices crying the wilderness, eating locusts and honey, wearing sackcloth and ashes and accursed, molested, or even murdered by the people, because they question the hypocrisy of the status quo and tear all complacency and expedience to shreds. The transgressive visionary thus becomes an accursed outcast, like the foolish shepherd of Zechariah, who becomes the accursed one, just as Jesus, in his footsteps, was crucified for blasphemy.

By contrast, the role of God, as the allegorist Carlos Castaneda said, is to keep the assemblage point - our umbilical connection to the visionary world - firmly fixed in one place. God is on the table top of the tonal and is thus a principal instrument of the world of order, in diametric opposition to the nagual realm of chaos and vision, and the transgressive power of the messiah.

Likewise the diverse varieties of religious experience espoused by the gnostics became a prime nemesis of the orthodoxy and were suppressed. This is why the Free Spirit author Marguerite Porette became the first person burned at the stake in Paris for her book “Mirror to the Simple Mind” and why Meister Eckhart stands so alone in the mystical tradition of Christianity.

Occasionally a transgressor, be he Jeremiah, Jesus, or Muhammad, manages to break out of the box and trigger a paradigm shift in the description of reality. Although a transgressor, the ‘founder’ may become the source of a new order of coercive covenant, as both testaments of the Bible and the Quran illustrate. Nevertheless, once the new paradigm becomes established, the forces of orthodoxy and control take over and the ‘founder’ evolves into a trickster hero larger than life, then inflating to become the Lord, the Son, or the final Prophet. Jesus has suffered this fate, as has Buddha, who is worshipped as a primitive icon from Nepal to Saigon, despite professing there was no god, but Nirvana. Muhammad is likewise idolized under pain of death for insult, or event depiction of his face. Christianity is constructed specifically to be a steward only until the Lord returns, but despite Jesus dripping in every church pulpit and the faithful drinking the wine of salvation, his inflated second coming is a doomsday made intentionally unachievable by the very hyperbole of the expectation, maintained by the orthodoxy, so that the rule of the clergy will never be released to the transgression of the new messiah. In this sense the church, while professing the second coming, is also devoted to preventing it.

Central to the debate about God in the modern world remain two very different descriptions of complexity – evolution and intelligent design. The former is stochastic and unpredictable, the latter both ordered and forming a direct analogy to human creativity and industrial design in just the way we have seen religious inflation turns men into gods. While these two are not necessarily entirely at odds, the explanatory power of evolution is immense, detailed and refutable. By contrast it’s hard to make a falsifiable claim about intelligent design, particularly if you don’t have any real evidence for the designer, or even any reliable idea what they might actually be like.

There are however deeper abysses in which the apotheosis of God can shelter. Despite the human genome being laid bare, the mind-body relationship remains a scientific enigma. No description of reality which fails to explain why we are conscious sentient beings and what the relationship between, conscious volition and the universe is, can hope to carry the weight of spiritual conviction.

Another serious question driving religious conviction is “Why did it happen to Me?” We know the vagaries of fate. We know some people get tuberculosis, but why did it happen to me? This is a basic question about whether the world has a ‘divine plan’ or whether it is buffeted by unruly, unfeeling forces of randomness – an existential condition from which many people recoil.

This arbitrariness is a feature of the mortal coil and it is why the !Kung set the lesser god in the Western sky to rule over those darker aspects of life that lead to accident, disease, misfortune and death. Without variation of opportunity, life could not strive for survival. Predators, parasites and diseases are all necessary parts of the bundle of life and the whetting stone of its enrichment. Sex itself is a paradox between individual mortality, individual diversity and evolutionary success. In sacrificing parthenogenesis, we sacrificed clonal immortality, but in the process gained a new form of genetic altruism transmitting only half our genes in a true merging of identities, which became the most potent force for viable genetic diversity imaginable.

Partly this is an aspect of a super-abundant quantum universe in which there are far more possibilities and combinations than can exist in a given location in time and space, so the universe has a decision-making process revealed through uncertainty, which results in the cat being either alive or dead, when Schrödinger opens the box, rather than both. We are only beginning to understand the full implications of quantum entanglement, and how hidden relationships may come to be coincidentally expressed.

But underneath all this is a profound question: Is the universe just blind groping and consciousness just and incidental epiphenomenon of a cosmos full of annihilating forces, in which life is a mere accident, and the organism is little more than a vehicle held together by selfish genes? Or does life have some sort of cosmological role in generating the conscious condition as a manifestation of the evolutionary process coming to a climactic crest?

The Noosphere

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin espoused just such an emergent cosmology when he wrote “The Phenomenon of Man” which, like the Gnostics, remained suppressed by the Catholic church until his death. Such a cosmology is apocalyptic in the sense that evolution rises to a crest, in which a new awareness and connectivity emerges in the noosphere.

This is all a bit orderly and a little too close to intelligent design for comfort, but it is consistent with an emergent quantum universe in which there is a cosmological Σ of complexity on the equator of space time mid-way between α and Ω, of beginning and end, cumulatively integrating the forces of nature, in which life and the biota become the quintessential expression of the four forces, electromagnetism, gravitation and the strong and weak nuclear forces in interaction, giving rise to the supra-molecular matter of tissues and their most elegant and sensitive collective reverberations, in the experiential consciousness of the brain.

Darwin sits in paradise on the cosmic equator manifesting cosmic consciousness in co-participation with the biota, regardless of the final heat death, big crunch or fractal inflation

It is only a small step from here to an evolutionary cosmology based on quantum reality in which the biota become the principal generators of the stream of consciousness in the universe and the means by which the creative process manifesting itself in space-time can become aware of itself and how it has come into being, through our collective compassionate understanding of one another and of the conscious process we are irreversibly participating in.

There is a central truth to apocalyptic reality and that is that once a species gains the fruit of the tree of knowledge, as we have, there is no turning back, and although life has taken four and a half billion years to reach this point on Earth, life now dangles on the thread of our own folly, for we have discovered the human genome, the forces of nature and weapons of mass destruction, and unless we destroy ourselves, this is a focal turning point of the planet for hundreds of thousands of years, or millions of years to come.

I prefer to follow a formless path of sacramental integration with nature than the dharmas and sadhanas of a structured path, as the noble savage is wont to do, but, in this, I recognize a deep truth, which is that, although I am just one organism on planet Earth, I am also in the likeness of the cosmic source – one only begotten in the likeness also – cosmic in my wilderness as we are each also cosmic in the likeness, if we recognize the truth and take responsibility for our existential condition, and this is the Power of the mysterium manifest.

I also come to realize that as the ‘Self’’ that is not a self, but both at the source of each of us, and a paradox of the subject object relationship, we are also compassionately aware of ourselves from beyond the mortal coil, ever merciful of the journey of mortal engagement and the fear of the disengagement - of certain death - and the travail that is the flesh, and yet its incomparable beauty as the full manifestation of the conscious spirit co-participating in the creative realization that we ARE the mysterium tremendum coming to know itself as one is to one, even as we slip in reverie and ecstasy beyond the confines of our physical incarnation.

Shiva-Krishna paying respects to Kali after leaving Jerusalem

And in all our interactions, that may be subtly interconnected in the quantum entanglement, over space-time eternal, we step into a truly supernatural realm, without ever coming to a final conclusion about its powers and properties, because, in the winds of fate, and in the turbulent winds of the hurricanes that surround us, in the leaves blowing past us that may be whipped up by the little breezes emerging from the shadows of our minds, and in the uncertainties within the flux of life and fortune, all these remain pregnant to the visionary mind and can never be captured as a predestiny, or ever repeated for convenience, or proof, for the very reason that, as the grail bearers and trail blazers of cosmic consciousness, we are both transgressors and co-participants in the unfolding creative process, with all its unpredictable synchronicities, so that by our very existence, nothing becomes repeatable, or predictable.

Thus it is never a matter of believing, but of having to believe, as holding one’s breath, while watching a bud burst, or the play of a fountain in the sunlight, never knowing for certainty which way the next drop will fall, although feeling it, from our very bones to our innermost soul, if we can but free ourselves from the prison of our mortal distractions.

Alexander Richard 1987 The Biology of Moral Systems Aldine de Gruyter, NY.
de Chardin, Pierre Teilhard 1955 The Phenomenon of Man, William Collins &
Sons., London.
Hamer, Dean 2004 The God Gene: How Faith Is Hard-Wired Into Our Genes Random House.

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