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From Issue Thirteen, August 2011 « Previous Article Next Article »

The Noetic Imperative and the Myths of Science

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A loving couple was traveling with others on a bus through a scenic mountain region. When they spied a hotel at a lovely spot, they decided to stop the bus and alight. Down the road, minutes later, a huge rockfall crushed the bus, instantly killing everyone on board. At seeing this, the couple exclaimed, “We wish we were still on that bus!”

Why did they wish this?

The Process of Knowing

Homo sapiens have three distinct brains, which evolved more or less independently: each biological development was also a major technological advance. The first brain, the reptilian brain, is the seat of behavioral intelligence. The second, the mammalian brain, is the seat of emotional intelligence. The third, the neocortex, is the rational brain. They run two contrapuntal neurophysiological systems: a self-preservation system and a species-preservation system.1 Because the communications network among these three brains is highly sophisticated, we experience ourselves as a single identity.

American physicist-philosopher Thomas Kuhn proposed that an internal paradigm interprets all data coming to the brain through the senses, framing our perception, thinking, and behavior. Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, shows how the architecture of the brain gives the emotional brain, or mammalian brain, the power to hijack our rational brain, or neocortex, via the amygdala.2 Consequently, we cannot think a thought or consider new information in the neocortex if it’s foreign to the programming of the mammalian brain, which is determined by our internal paradigm.

In my analysis, an internal paradigm consists of three archetypal myths:

1. the myth of creation-framing reality, which addresses the question, Where am I?
2. the myth of origin-framing belonging, which addresses the question, What am I?
3. the hero myths of identity and individuality, which address the question, Who am I?

We view the world through these myths. Collectively, they form the nucleus of a cultural identity.

Where? What? Who? Our answers to these three archetypal questions create unique neural pathways in the brain that frame the reality-constructs through which we interpret data. We constantly select from the world the data that best fit our answers and delete the data foreign to our myths, no matter how valid the data. As a result, what may be perfectly obvious to one person will be totally imperceptible to someone with a different set of myths. In effect, these myths program the brain, molding unique neural pathways that act as filters on experience. Human brains are physiologically incapable of processing data foreign to the myths that program them.

This has implications for scientific development. Unless there are safeguards to address this phenomenon, data that are valid within a new set of myths but anomalies in at least one of the current myths will be dismissed. Hence, Max Planck’s laconic observation, “Science proceeds funeral by funeral.”

The following points should also be noted about these three myths:

  • They are not open to rational appraisal because they are beyond the reach of our intellect.
  • They act on the mammalian brain like a computer program, hijacking any data that doesn’t fit. Indeed, to our neocortex, foreign data don’t exist. Such hijacking can take the form of black people under apartheid, LGBT rights to the religious right, or alternative medicine to fundamentalist biomedical researchers.
  • They form the subjective foundation of any knowledge system, including Western science.

I call these three myths a noetic imperative. Why “noetic”? Because what I’m talking about involves all three of our brains, as well as our access to what Teilhard de Chardin described as the noosphere—a realm of cognition above and beyond the geosphere and the biosphere. The word “noetic” is derived from the Greek noos or nous, which signifies inner knowing or consciousness.

And why “imperative”? Primarily because these three myths frame our behavior; they are the ultimate source of all action. Secondarily because the outcome of their influence parallels the “territorial imperative” that Robert Ardrey has shown governs the animal world. The study of animal behavior shows that through the contrapuntal drives of stimulation (accessed through challenge), security (achieved through belonging to a group), and identity (attained through position in that group), the territorial imperative integrates the good of one and the good of all to manifest a natural morality. At the human level, this integration is attained through a dynamic balance among the drives for truth, fair play, and love.3 The actual morality we live is the product of the frame given to these three drives by the three myths we believe.

A History of Western Programming

The Medieval Noetic Imperative

The Medieval Creation Myth– Ptolemy (ca. AD 150) presented a geocentric creation with the stars and planets embedded in rotating celestial spheres. Its unmoving outermost region, heaven, was the dwelling place of God and all the elect. Ptolemy’s model of the universe was the medieval answer to the question, Where am I?

The Medieval Origin Myth– In Ptolemaic reality, humans were fallen angels trying to find their way back home to heaven. This medieval origin story explained where we belong and answered the question, What am I?

The Medieval Hero Myth– The hero’s victory lay in slaying the dragons of temptation and evil. The dynamo driving the individual was the struggle between trudging the upward path to heaven (the straight and narrow) and the downward path to hell (maddeningly strewn with wonderful goodies like sex, booze, and riches). This was the answer to the question, Who am I? It defined personal identity and the path for questing individuality.

The Copernican Noetic Imperative

Yesterday’s Creation Myth– Our most recent creation myth was originally formulated by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. The answer to the question, Where am I?, is a physical “uni-verse” that stretches to infinity—no heaven and no hell. From Copernicus’s map of the heavens, Galileo’s telescope, and Newton’s mathematical laws, a whole new reality came to govern human perception. The new icon for creation was the clock—mechanistic, entropic, and quintessentially meaningless.

The new ideas triumphed not because they were scientific; it took 150 years to develop the instrumentation that validated Galileo. Until then, reason was still on the side of the Catholic Church.4 They won out because they enabled many people in the lower classes to make fortunes who would otherwise have stayed poor.5 For example, for every ten ships that sailed from Venice, only about one returned. Shares in a departing ship were cheap; should it return, those inexpensive shares were worth a fortune. But with the telescope, one could identify a ship two hours before the naked eye could. If one bought shares before news of a returning ship became public, one would make a financial killing. Telescopes were invaluable. For a myriad such reasons, Copernicus’s sans-heaven worldview won and became a basis of materialism.

Yesterday’s Origin Myth– Our most recent origin myth came to us from William Smith, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx. In answer to the question, What am I?, they gave us a new story of humanness, which has tended to get truncated from species to race to nation—making nationalism toxic, a secular superstition.

As wryly noted by best-selling author Simon Winchester in his book The Map That Changed the World, William Smith, being an uneducated man, was not aware of the church’s “certainty” that the world was created at “9:00 a.m. on Monday, October 23, 4004 BC.” So Smith’s perception was free to extend the church’s creation story of a mere four thousand years to millions of years, stretching the parameters of our quest for the origin of life. In creating the science of geology, Smith laid the foundation on which Darwin could formulate the theory of evolution.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is a story of origin congruent with the clockwork universe. But it is a theory of a particular kind of evolution in which humankind is top dog, and competition is how we got there. “Survival of the fittest” is a meaningless and bloody struggle for survival and alpha status. Darwin’s theory is a story of random growth governed by ruthless behavior and leading to an undefined, though much described, Utopia—a “secular heaven” or a “heaven substitute.”

Karl Marx provided the climax every good story needs. In the earlier hierarchy, sovereignty lay with God, and various classes of humans followed below. In the new hierarchy, all humans were the top class because the lower classes, à la Darwin, were animals, plants, and minerals. In this view, the denouement of the great human story was to achieve a classless society. Sovereignty went secular. In a clockwork universe, the building blocks are solid atoms, and there is no heaven. In a society, the building blocks are people. This new origin story vested sovereignty in “the people,” giving rise to secular politics—communism, capitalism, democracy, materialism, and socialism. What no one notices is that a classless society is unnatural because it goes against the order of nature, which runs on hierarchy.

Yesterday’s Hero Myth– Our most recent hero myth came to us from psychology, specifically Freud’s answer to the question, Who am I?The new dynamo driving the individual was sex. Through one’s possessions and their power over others, rank ensured maximum access to sex.The pinnacle of masculine alpha status was to be rich enough and powerful enough to possess women, to enjoy sex with zero commitment. The hero’s victory was a victory over women and, by extension, nature. “I bring to you Nature and all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave,” wrote Roger Bacon in 1268. Power over all, people and nature—not the empowerment of others—was the measure of masculine stature, and its contemporary heroes are Rambo and James Bond.

In yesterday’s noetic imperative, scientific replaced the medieval noetic imperative’s word of God as the ultimate validation, justification, and rationalization of human existence. Scientific absolutism excluded any data foreign to its associated noetic imperative, where humans are classless, self-interested studs in a clockwork reality.

But then quantum physics happened!

The Emerging Noetic Imperative?

Tomorrow’s Creation Myth– As described by Nobel laureates such as David Bohm, in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, and Michael Talbot, in The Holographic Universe, quantum physics replaces the “uni-verse” with a “multi-verse,” or parallel universes. The space-time continuum—the universe we know—is just one set of frequencies, one TV channel so to speak, that humans can perceive. The human eye can decode frequencies roughly 1014 through 1015 cycles per second. Change this to 1034 through 1035 and another universe, another TV channel, is decoded. Quantum physics changes our picture of creation so radically that it changes everything, making the Copernican noetic imperative obsolete.

Tomorrow’s Origin Myth –

  • Cooperation, not competition, drives evolution. What is manifest in the single-celled organisms inventing multicellular organisms and all the complex life-forms we see developing through evolution is a magnificent cooperative endeavor.
  • Fair play, in the sense of justice, trumps self-interest throughout the animal kingdom. Ethology shows that fair play supersedes self-interest everywhere in nature—with monkeys and even with dogs.5
  • Humans are an open-looped, not closed-loop, system.6 In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes the mechanism of the human open-loop system:

These specialized cells [mirror neurons] permit the formation between two brains of a functional link, a feedback loop that crosses the skin-and-skull barrier between bodies. In systems terms, during this linkup brains couple, with the output of one becoming input to drive the workings of the other . . . forming what amounts to an interbrain circuit. When two entities are connected in a feedback loop, as the first changes, so does the second.

This means that other people impact our physiology and thus our health, and so by limiting itself to the individual, the current bio-medical model is obsolete.

  • Invisible fields run the functioning and expression of the biological cell. Developmental biologist Bruce Lipton writes that the protein switches controlling gene expression are primarily turned on and off by what he calls “environmental signals.” These signals include one’s identity:

The cell engages in behavior when its brain, the membrane, responds to environmental signals. In fact, every functional protein in our body is made as a complementary image of an environmental signal. If the protein did not have a complementary signal to couple with, it would not function . . . [So] every protein in our bodies is a physical/electro-magnetic complement to something in the environment.7

The research Lipton writes about suggests that we, our identity, exist independent of the body, holding the promise that identity transcends death.

Tomorrow’s Hero Myth– In the new identity myth, the hero’s victory manifests a form (a body) that can decode more and more of the cosmos. Teilhard de Chardin looked at the physical evolution of the body as the outcome of an improvement in organization at an invisible, or psychic, level (function). He called this process complexification. Ethology supports the hypothesis that form follows function. So does the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, which is the science of how the brain changes its structure and function in response to input. Morphological development, then (morphology is the study of shape), is the outcome of an organism seeking higher function, not the other way around.

The Baldwin effect is the phenomenon in nature where changes in the structure and functioning of the body, induced environmentally or by learned inputs through neuroplasticity, become genetically encoded and passed from generation to generation. The case for such positive evolutionary mutation is further supported by the following:

  • In his paper “Did Meditating Make Us Human?”, Matt Rossano, a professor of psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University, suggests that meditation created the neural pathways that sparked the emergence of the anatomically modern human being—the new and improved version of Neanderthals. His hypothesis is that the function created the form.8
  • In Vibrational Medicine, physician Richard Gerber indicates that meditation increases the coherence, or level of organization, of the invisible fields that activate a cell.9 This supports Teilhard’s notion of complexification.
  • As science journalist Lynne McTaggart describes it, biophoton theory suggests that an “internet of light” runs the functioning of the body through something called super-radiance (coherent light), which flows through microtubules and dendrites (see this issue’s feature “What is Consciousness?”). Such an "administrative internet" would be one of the mechanisms of complexification: the more coherent the super-radiance, the more sophisticated the organism.

Using these mechanisms, how do we evolve? How is the victory that creates a more sophisticated body for decoding the cosmos achieved? The Buddha taught that step one is to stop repressing the unacceptable parts of ourselves, the hooks for negative qualities like greed, lust, and gluttony, which hijack our lives and reverse the evolutionary process. Instead, we are to master our interior energies, specifically by controlling our attention. Neuroscience shows, via the elixir of neuroplasticity, that paying attention is almost magical in its power to alter the brain and enlarge functional circuits. Meditation is systematic training in paying attention.

In the Vedas, India’s ancient texts, these interior energies are seen to operate through vortices called chakras. The greater one’s mastery, the faster spin the vortices and the more coherent (organized) the light that pours through them. Biophoton theory allows us a glimpse of the consequences. The Buddha taught that we must spin the vortices, which doesn’t mean turning the wheel but attaining a dynamic balance among truth, fair play, and love—what he called dharma. Manifesting light of increasing coherence culminates in a person becoming a chakravartin, one who attains full mastery of human energies. The outcome of such an achievement is the evolution of a body that is able to perceive higher frequencies and decode more of the various TV channels of creation that we are now beginning to discover.

The Bigger Picture

So why did the couple wish they had stayed on the bus? Was this a death wish or survivors’ guilt? Both of those answers are confined to the small picture, like yesterday’s noetic imperative. What is the big picture?

If the couple had not stopped the bus to alight, the bus would have passed the rockfall before it fell, and everyone would have lived.

The new noetic imperative takes in the bigger picture by reevaluating data foreign to (and thus rejected by) yesterday’s noetic imperative. We can also check whether those with the “authority” to evaluate such data are making valid judgments. Are they rejecting data because it isn’t valid or simply because it threatens their psychological security by challenging their internalized noetic imperative? This was what the church did with Galileo’s work, what scientists did with Boltzmann’s formulation of the atom, and what accounts for the current politicizing of climate change. Data that are unintelligible in one noetic imperative can be perfectly obvious in another.

Today, scientific research is painting a bigger picture of how things work, creating a new noetic imperative in which everything is alive and vibrant. As with the couple and the bus, do we really have to wait for today’s scientific establishment to die off before we can claim tomorrow’s new story?


Notes

1. Sheila Wang, “A Conceptual Framework for Integrating Research to the Physiology of Compassion and the Wisdom of Buddhist Teachings,” in Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy, ed. Paul Gilbert (London: Routledge, 2005).

2. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 2006), p. 15.

3. J. Parkes, “The Bible, the World, and the Trinity” (Southampton University: The Parkes Library).

4. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (London: New Left Books, 1975).

5. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature (New York: HarperOne, 1990).

6. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage, 2001).

7. Bruce H. Lipton, The Biology of Belief (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2011).

8. Matthew J. Rossana, “Did Meditating Make Us Human?” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17, no. 1 (2007): 47–58.

9. Richard Gerber, Vibrational Medicine (Santa Fe, NM: Bear and Company, 2001).

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