Sunday, February 16, 2014

Noogenesis: The Coming Into Being of the Human Thought World (2/16/14)

Noogenesis:  The Coming Into Being of the Human Thought World
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 16, 2014

The Apostle Paul and Stephen Hawking

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’

But we have the mind of Christ.
--Paul, 1 Corinthians 2:14-16

However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God.
--Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

One of the advantages of being the baby of the family is that I had the chance to be with my parents when they were a bit less busy.   From elementary school through high school my brother and sister had left and I hung out with my parents.  

At the dinner table, often after church, we would have some theological discussions.   My mother would pray before every meal and my father would on occasion push her buttons.    He would say something like,

“It would be easy to set up an experiment to see whether or not prayer has any effects.  You have a control group that doesn’t receive prayer and one that does and measure the results.”   

My mother would say something like,

“Oh Gordon, you can’t test God.”

Since then there have been various experiments testing the efficacy of prayer on people with illness.   The largest funded by the John Templeton Foundation concluded in 2006 that prayers by strangers had no effect on the recovery of patients undergoing heart surgery.  

That doesn’t matter to people who pray.   People who believe will believe regardless of what tests are ever conducted.   Regardless of tests, I do think there can be value in prayer.    I think prayer is one way in which some people express love and caring.    It can force our attention on something other than our own worries or regrets.    It can be a practice of awareness and compassion.  It can be a way to discern a path or direction.   When someone who loves you spends time with you and shares empathy that is prayer.  

The best prayer ever may be one without words.   It may be a hug, a shared tear, a hand held.    An authentic prayer is not forced but arises naturally as people share their vulnerability in safety and with compassion.   It doesn’t matter what is done or said, what matters is the relationship.    That is how I see prayer.   Perhaps in doing more of that, positive change could occur in our world.

The exchange between my mother and my father is one that happened often in one form or another as they parented me.   Their differences reflect the different ways in which they experience their worlds.     My father experiences his world through observation and testing, my mother through spiritual knowing.   

Obviously, when I describe my parents in that way, I am making a projection upon them for the purpose of illustration.  They are, as are we all, complex and much more interesting than either this or that.   

Still, those two ways of knowing have had a yin/yang relationship in my own life.   My Buddhism professor at seminary, Charles Ryerson, described yin and yang not as a violent struggle or contest but as lovers wrestling.    My parents both live in me.    I feel I would be less of a person if I were to allow one way of knowing to silence the other.

I included the two readings, one from the Apostle Paul and the other from Stephen Hawking to illustrate those two ways of knowing, revelation and reason.    Rather than pick a side and garner votes for our favorite, I am going to let them wrestle.  Perhaps they wrestle within you as well. 

I will suggest that these two ways of knowing have a common ancestor.  These two ways of knowing, revelation and reason, are products of thenoosphere.   The noosphere is a word coined by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.    It comes from the Greek word, Nous, or mind to refer to the world of human thought.   

Like the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere that make up the interconnected geospheres of Earth, the noosphere is just as real even if not physical.   The noosphere is the topic for today.   But first a quick recap.

This series of sermons is based on theologian Lloyd Geering’s book, From the Big Bang to God:  Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution.    Today we start the second half of this book.   We covered the emergence of the universe, then of Earth, then of Life, then of humankind, then of language.   Now we are moving into the emergence of the human thought world and to its products.

The universe begins 13.7 billion years ago with a singularity.  Time and space emerge in what is called the Big Bang.   Everything that exists today and will exist in the future had its potential in that speck of dense energy.    That includes everything physical from bananas to Buicks to black holes as well as everything non-physical from language to lament to love.    

It takes the energy of a supernova blasting through a gas cloud 9 billion years later for our sun and its solar system including Earth to form.   Perhaps another billion years on Earth for the first single cell to appear, a perfect synthesis of chemical reactions that can replicate itself.   Perhaps another 3 billion years goes by, only a half billion years ago, for Life to explode and evolve into a breathtaking variety of plants and animals.    Our species, Homo sapiens, emerge from our immediate ancestors, the Great Apes, only two million years ago, and what distinguishes this species most from all others is what evolved less than 100,000 years ago, language.   

This ability to communicate beyond grunts and gestures allowed the universe to do something it had never been able to do at least in this part of the galaxy, that is to reflect upon itself.     Through language and the corresponding human thought world, the universe is able to tell its story.    Because of the evolution of language and the evolution of self-consciousness, the universe can say, “I am.”   

Human beings are the bards of the cosmos.    We are the minstrels of meaning.  We are the gregarious gurus of grace.   I find this to be inspiring.   I along with the rest of you can look at some of the antics of others of my species and wonder that the universe waited 13.7 billion years for this?    The Tennessee legislature?   13.7 billion years and we get the Shopping Channel?    But we get Hamlet, too, and Downton Abbey. 

All of it is recent in the universe’s history.   It is all a serendipitous interaction of the emergence of self-consciousness, language, and the products of that interaction, which has become our cultural worlds.     Everything from prayer to the periodic table to the scientific method to Jesus Christ is a product of the noosphere, the world of human thought.     

In this chapter on noogenesis, Lloyd Geering makes reference to philosopher of science, Karl Popper.     Popper invited us to think of three worlds.    

World one is the physical world as it is.   This is everything that exists.    We cannot know the world as it is, because we can only interpret it through our own subjectivity.   That is world two.

World two is our self-conscious subjectivity.   We each know our own even as we cannot enter the subjectivity of the other.   Even as world two is non-physical, this world arose out of the physical world and it is the immediate way that we experience world one. 

World three is what Popper called “the products of the human mind.”  Geering calls this “the sum total of human thought and knowledge.”   It is from World 3 that we learn who we are and experience worlds two and one.   

Worlds two and three together, our subjectivity and self-consciousness combined with the cultural products of that interaction, make up what Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere. You could call it in short, human culture, and put a date on that of about 50,000 years ago. 

This noosphere is a product of evolution.    It isn’t something that came from outside of the universe or beyond Earth or Life or of human evolution, but the noosphere co-evolved with Homo sapiens.

This is how Lloyd Geering puts it:

“Just as Earth had become enveloped by the hydrosphere, the atmosphere and the biosphere in turn, Teilhard saw the evolution of thought within the human species as a significant new activity encompassing Earth, which he said now possessed a “thinking envelope”.  Metaphorically speaking, we could even think of the noosphere as an embryonic “mind of the Earth”.”

Again, we can’t underestimate the importance of the noosphere.  It is what allows the universe to talk about its birthday.    It allows the universe to be self-conscious. With it, the universe can talk about love, justice, science and any of the other things we can imagine or dream.     It does so, of course, through a serendipitous consequence of evolution, the emergence of human beings, and their physical developments that allowed for human thought and language to emerge.

My mother’s and my father’s ways of knowing have a common ancestor, the emergence of the noosphere.   This noosphere, this mind of Earth, if you will, continues to expand and grow.   The next few sermons will show how it evolved from stories and emergence of the gods to speculative thought and monotheism to to empirical knowledge and science.    

This process is not replacement.   Each development is a new way of thinking that encompasses and includes what has come before and synthesizes it all into a new whole.   

For example, our ancestors prayed to a plethora of gods so that they would have good fortune, rain on the crops, a successful love life, the avoidance punishment for sins, and so forth.    Stories of gods were created along with rituals and worship.

As the noosphere, the human thought world, evolved and expanded, we came to realize that not everything that happens in the world is explained by gods.   Our prayer and worship therefore evolved.   We interpreted these old stories of the gods in new ways.  

But these old stories can tell us surprising things about ourselves.   They are part of our cultural DNA.  They can touch the heart of life as well as the mind.    We don’t say we don’t need the stories or that we no longer need to pray or to worship.    That is part of us, too.     

We do, however, allow our prayer and our worship to evolve.  It needs to so that it reflects what is real experience.   We want our prayer and our worship to be meaningful, not something we are simply supposed to believe and do.  

As I think of my parents at the kitchen table, I realize that I don’t want those lovers to stop wrestling:

periodic tables and prayer,
reason and revelation,
science and spirit,
mind and heart. 

“Both…and” as we seek truth and goodness.


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