Matter All the Way Up and Spirit All the Way Down

David Paterson’s Conference workshop explored how humans have evolved as fully animal and fully spiritual. Here is his report of it. David is a SoF Trustee and former Chair.

If Dinah was right in her article The Art of Humanity in Sofia No. 88, might we be able to see matter and spirit together in every stage of evolution? It seemed worthwhile to have a Workshop at the Liverpool Conference to treat this question as a thought experiment. Here is a write-up of the result.

In writing this account, I have tried to reflect the nature of the Workshop – exploring the territory, responding to a wide variety of ideas (perhaps a bit like the evolutionary process itself). And also to reflect the purpose of the Workshop to ask questions and reveal new questions rather that to seek answers. I hope that on paper it can stimulate new thinking as the Workshop itself did, and sketch out a way of refuting the Intelligent Design hypothesis without reductionism.

I started it off with some thoughts: Energy condenses into particles, which interact, produce atoms, then molecules. ‘Life’ starts – quite simply – when there arises a type of molecule which is able to replicate itself. At once natural selection kicks in. Replication is sometimes not quite perfect. Molecules which are best at building their copies from their environment are the ones which proliferate most. An increasing variety and complexity develop.

At some evolutionary stage, molecules combine in pairs to create copies containing a new mixture of their respective genes. This immensely speeds up the process of evolutionary change, variety and complexity. Sexual reproduction means that no two of these reproducing molecules are exactly the same as each other. Having set the scene, may we look at what we are to do in this thought experiment? In looking at human experience holistically, we must avoid implying that, though science can explain many things, it cannot explain all, so that it needs religion (or art, or philosophy) to fill the gaps. (That would leave a diminishing role for anything which was not science!) A proper ‘explanation’ leaves, in theory, no remainder. At the same time, what we are ‘explaining’ is infinite. No gaps, but vast scope. However much we have brought into our ‘explanation’, there will always be more. More to explore, more to explain, more to love, more to rejoice in, more to play with, more to experiment with, more to use, with our amazing capacity for ingenuity, for our own purposes. Science, art and religion don’t fill gaps in each other, they are instead all ways in which – together – humans explore, love, worship and create. Perhaps science, art and religion are more about celebrating than explaining.

Back to looking at evolution: The way basic life-forms increase in variety and complexity looks very like exploring and creating. Sensation and reaction to stimulus develop, then immense proliferation so that each species explores its environment, usually with many failures and much waste. The few successes become the agents of the future. You can watch this in the swarms of eggs many fish produce, most of them to be eaten, many to die in unsuitable habitats, some to explore new ones successfully.

Or watch ants randomly searching, exploring. Then one of them, reacting to a stimulus, finds something useful and the whole colony organises to use it – a whole line of ants like a motorway to and from the mouldy sandwich on the shelf. Or indeed the spores of mould themselves.

Exploring and experimenting are central aspects of the process of evolution. What we are looking for is whether we might perceive the roots of what we could now call science already there in the process of evolution. Can we see in simple living cells, with their sense organs and simple means of propulsion, something which emerges as human science; and can we trace this right through its development because of random movement and selection, so that meaning or purpose do not arise from outside this process, but are inherent in it as emergent properties.

We were concerned not to appear reductive or nihilistic. It is not that meaning is only exploration and selection, but rather that the seeds of what we call meaning are to be found everywhere. There is no need to postulate a mysterious ‘life force’ urging biological life towards a spiritual goal. Science can explain this without remainder – i.e. with no gaps – but always aware that there remains more to explore.

The vastness of time and immense frequency of molecular events enables an amazing variety and complexity to arise. Sheer proliferation speeds the process: failure on a vast scale, with the occasional reproducible success.           For instance, the swarms of eggs and young produced by fish mostly feed other organisms. A few survive to do the same for the next generation.

Flowers – scent, colour, spores, seeds mostly provide food for others, but enable flowers to spread and colonise widely and rapidly. A huge variety of insects are ready to exploit any ecological niche, and they in turn provide a niche for the development of predators. Birds display great variety and efficient exploration. Different species may use different aspects of the same environment – fruit, seeds, worms, insects – and others migrate over vast distances to find what suits them best. Bird behaviour is so complex and developed that it begins to look almost like what for us is conscious behaviour.

A question to ask ourselves: What is beauty? It’s about an organism developing things that attract other beings so that they do what it needs them to do, and ugliness repels others so that they don’t do what would harm it. So fish and flowers use colour; birds sing to attract mates, repel enemies and stake territory. And human beings find these things ‘beautiful’.

So is that where the origins of the visual arts and music are to be found? Would there have been music if birds hadn’t needed sound to control their relationships with each other? A lot of human musicians acknowledge their indebtedness to birdsong (Beethoven, Messaien…). And the other arts too are often displays which say ‘this is me’ or ‘this is my territory’. The human foetus experiences the rhythm of its mother’s heart, and perhaps the cross-rhythm arising from its own heartbeat as well. In countries where songbirds are rare, human music tends to be more about rhythm than melody. We wondered whether that was significant.

We moved on up the evolutionary scale to mammals. Sounds – grunts, whistles, screams, roars – naturally acquire accepted significance for a species. A meaning? A language? We felt we had made a case for describing science and art as emergent properties from the evolutionary process, but what about ‘spiritual values’?

Art forms take human experience and ‘condense’ them in a way that deepens them (Dinah calls it ‘thickening’ in her article The Art of Humanity – from dichten, the German for writing poetry.) The emergence of consciousness marks a stage or series of stages in the increasing complexity of decision-making. Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind argues that both consciousness and religion stem from the ability to talk to yourself and are language-dependent. (Consciousness Studies have moved on with little reference to Jaynes. Anthony Freeman might be a good speaker for the next Conference.) But even without accepting Jaynes, we can see that the leadership of small packs might well develop to tribal chieftains and then into some sort of divine leader, as the increasing size of the group necessitates more complex coherence for its success.

We explored the roots of human consciousness in human infancy: What happens when babies become aware of their surroundings? When does that happen? What are the origins of memory? We agreed that memory could be traced back to a very early stage in the evolutionary process (genes themselves are a form of memory), but that memory and consciousness are not the same thing. Is consciousness self-awareness? (Children often refer to themselves by name before saying ‘me’, and ‘I’ may come even later. Does awareness of oneself as object precede awareness of oneself as subject?)

How would we devise an experiment to find out whether an animal is ‘thinking’? What would we mean by that? Human beings cannot exist without changing their environment, and religion is a way of imposing order and meaning on the world as we perceive it. We noted that it is the essence of a living organism that it extracts ingredients from its surroundings to convert into itself, and that successful ‘higher’ animals change their environment to suit their needs.

Is artistic expression need-driven? Is it an affirmation of my existence – as object? – as subject? A way of changing the world? And myself? (Each bit of art makes me a little different.) Art gains value from expressing eternity in the present moment, and all creativity is related to the need to change something, to leave something for posterity. (As did all the species before us in the evolutionary process?)

In the last few minutes of the Workshop we looked at imagination. How far can we go back in evolution to find an equivalent to ideas of ‘how things might be’, or ‘might have been’? Is instinct a more primitive form of imagining things? Perhaps the difference between the two is language (instinct is wholly chemical – imagination is too, but it emerges as a new possibility when there’s a language base.) In that case, how widely do you define language? Sounds, body language, any agreed symbolic system of communication? Agreed by how many? Will two be enough? Or just one – a language in which you talk to yourself? And is that what consciousness is? And do the roots of imagination lie in self-reflected instinct? Many questions which, if we were able to answer them, would lead to more questions still.

We were aware that our discussion kept following a variety of trains of thought and developing a variety of questions: The Western tradition of ‘either-or’ thinking, in which a statement is either true or false, was criticised. Eastern philosophy is – on the whole – much more about ‘both-and’ thinking. Science has flourished in the either-or tradition, but has recently had to acknowledge both-and as well, for instance in Quantum Mechanics (e.g. the wave/particle nature of subatomic phenomena). By contrast the arts have always used metaphor and other essentially both-and ways of expressing truth and meaning. One ‘truth’ does not exclude another ‘truth’, and in affirming something we may also affirm its opposite. Metaphor is both true and false. Anything is both like and unlike another thing. Are there equivalents to either-or behaviour and both-and behaviour in the course of evolution?

Religion seen as a human creation clearly explores human experience and assimilates it to human understanding in metaphor, story, ritual and meaning. Dogmatic religion loses the both-and and represents itself as either-or, claiming exclusive truth. (Interesting how ‘bad science’ and ‘bad religion’ have similar faults!) We felt we had explored the case for interpreting science, art and religion as emergent properties of the evolution of living creatures, and justified taking the approach seriously. And we’d enjoyed doing it!


One of the Workshop’s members – Patrick Sandford – found an interesting quotation from Tennessee Williams, and used it in his lecture later the same day:

A man must live through his life’s duration with his own little set of fears and angers, suspicions and vanities, and his appetites, spiritual and carnal. Life is built of them and he is built of life. The umbilical cord is a long, long rope of blood that has swung him as an aerialist on an all but endless Trapeze, oh, such a long, long way, from the first living organism that gave birth to another. Define it as the passion to create, which is all that we know of God. (Tennessee Williams: Memoirs (p.246) )
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