As the scientific revolution took hold in Europe, in the 18th and 19th centuries, some people were horrified by what seemed to be the destruction of the Nature’s spirit at the hands of mechanical forces. The Romantic poet, John Keats, memorably wrote in his poem “Lamina”:
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy? …
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line…
Unweave a rainbow.
Since then, we’ve had two hundred more years of unweaving. Laws of nature have been formulated and reformulated. Mysteries of nature have given up their secrets. And the split between the scientific and the spiritual view of the universe has become a chasm. A poignant modern expression of this can be seen in an Amazon review of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, a book that posits a reductionist view of evolution where each of us is seen to exist for no reason other than to act as replication vehicles for our genes:
Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it… On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings out of such complex processes… But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade… Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper – trying to believe, but not quite being able to – I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.
This blog, Finding the Li, will explore ways in which that beautiful rainbow of Nature’s mystery can be rewoven by a confluence of science and spirituality. My underlying proposition is that there is no necessary disconnect between the two. There are, no doubt, scientific belief systems that are incompatible with the search for meaning; and there are spiritual belief systems incompatible with scientific rigor. These are all grist for the Science vs. Theology debate that has endured for too long, trotting out old truisms in new clothing.
My interest in this blog is, instead, to explore the ways in which rigorous science can expand its project to access the mysteries of nature, and to engage the perspectives offered by some of the world’s great spiritual traditions that remain compatible with the findings of science. My hope is that, in this exploration, people like the reviewer of Dawkins’ book may find “something deeper” while remaining committed to the intellectual rigor of the scientific method.
There’s a companion blog to this one, called Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, which is dedicated to analyzing how the uniquely human capabilities of the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) – our ability to create abstractions, symbols, value systems, and to live by them – have created an imbalance in our human consciousness, which I’ve characterized as a “tyranny”. While that blog diagnoses what’s happened to our society and our collective consciousness, this blog explores ways to potentially remedy this imbalance, and move towards what I call a “democracy of consciousness.”
One way to think about what this means is to consider the difference between the notions of “control” and “coordination.” Traditional approaches in our Western culture view the role of the pfc-mediated part of our being – variously referred to through our history as the “soul,” “reason,” or “will” – as one of control. The pfc’s faculties are meant to control the demands of our bodies and emotions, and by doing so, enable us to transcend to a higher spiritual or intellectual plane. However, to the extent that our living beings are viewed as complex, self-organized systems, then the role of the pfc can begin to be seen instead as one of coordination.
In a 2004 paper, systems biologist Mihajilo Mesarovic and colleagues write about the difference between control and coordination:
There is a critical distinction between control and coordination. Control is ‘dictating what is to be done’. Coordination is providing ‘motivation’ for the controllers (regulators, modules, subsystems) to act so as to advance the overall system’s objective while the subsystems are performing their own functions, modified by coordination…
In a multilevel, hierarchical system… the task of the higher-level regulators is not to control but to coordinate, i.e. harmonise the functions of the first level regulators under changing conditions.
Mesarovic et. al. are discussing complex biological systems in general. My proposal is that we humans are complex biological systems par excellence, but that in our Western culture, we’ve learned to view our pfc’s function as controlling rather than coordinating this system. When I describe moving towards a “democracy of consciousness,” I’m talking about learning how to devolve power back to those other aspects of our being, and develop our pfc’s faculties for coordination rather than control.
One of my favorite metaphors on this subject is that of music. I’m going to propose in this blog that music offers a more powerful metaphor for how our minds really work than the common cliché of “brain as computer”. Think of the conductor of an orchestra… what’s he doing? Controlling or coordinating? Or a mixture of both? How does an improvisational jazz band keep it together? Who’s in charge?
It might not seem like a big change, but this shift in our awareness that I’m proposing involves a fundamental restructuring of our sense of ourselves and our values. And, ultimately, I believe this is what’s necessary if our global society is going to truly resolve the great imbalances of today’s world, manifested in global climate change and the greatest extinction of species in 65 million years.
Here are some of the topics this blog will touch on, all of them interrelated. I’ll add links to the topics below as I publish posts on each particular subject:
- How current approaches to self-organization add to our understanding of evolution, challenging the old reductionist “modern synthesis” developed in the early 20th century.
- How Chinese traditions of the Tao and Neo-Confucianism can help illuminate modern theories of self-organization and evolution (this is where we’ll come across the “li” in the title of this blog)
- How Buddhist approaches to consciousness can help us transcend the pfc’s metaphor of the self.
- How neuroscience sheds light on the power of meditation to help us towards a democracy of consciousness.
- How “animate intelligence” contrasts with our more conventional understanding of “conceptual” intelligence.
- How we can reharmonize our own animate and conceptual consciousness, and in doing so, play our part in re-balancing the human impact on the environment.
- How all these findings can lead to a new set of global values for the 21st century.
Enjoy the journey! And please share your comments whenever you feel you have something to say.
 Quoted by Orians, G. H. (2008). “Nature & human nature.” Dædalus(Spring 2008), 39-48.
 Cited by Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press, p. xiii
 Mesarovic, M. D., Sreenath, S. N., and Keene, J. D. (2004). “Search for organising principles: understanding in systems biology.” Systems Biology, 1(June 2004), 19-27.