“Experience Contains More Ideas than We Have Words”: Created Co-Creator as Science and Symbol

“Experience Contains More Ideas than We Have Words”: Created Co-Creator as Science and Symbol

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From the Metanexus lecture series “By Nature Creators: Coming to Terms with Human Nature”

I. Creating Meaning in a World of Surplus Ideas

If this were a sermon, its text would be a passage from Paul Ricoeur’s book, Interpretation Theory: “Because our experience of the world provokes more ideas than we have words to express them, we have to stretch the words we do have beyond their ordinary use in order to express the ideas that our experience of the world has generated” (Ricoeur 1976, 48). Our experience of the world generates more ideas than we have words for. That is what I want to explore this evening.

We are always in the situation that Ricoeur calls a “surplus of meaning.”  This is the seedbed in which our lives emerge.  This is the refining fire in which the days of our lives are forged.  Neuroscientist Terrence Deacon calls it “a world of full of abstraction, impossibilities, and paradoxes,” “a shared virtual world.”  We are the only species that “has ever wondered about its place in the world, because only one evolved the ability to do so.”  No other species on earth seems able to follow us into this virtual world of ideas (Deacon 1997, 1-2).

We take this all for granted.  We take for granted what Deacon calls the “evolutionary anomaly,” that we ask about our place and seek the meaning of this virtual world.  I want to explore what we take for granted; I want to ponder its significance with you for a moment, especially its significance for the issues we have worked through in this series of sessions together.  To begin with, I’ll hang my thoughts on two pegs: our minds and our language.

Our Minds

Today, we often say that we are hard wired for meaning.  A hundred years ago, William James said experience is not given to us as orderly and meaningful, but rather our minds are “an essentially teleological mechanism” that brings order to our experience of the world.  He goes on to say,

“The world’s contents are given to each of us in an order so foreign to our subjective interests that we can hardly by an effort of our imagination picture to ourselves what it is like.  We have to break that order altogether … we break it into histories, and we break it into arts, and we break it into sciences; and then we begin to feel at home” (James 1962, 7).

Seeking meaning in the situation of “more ideas than we have words for” is not an optional activity for us; it is at the center of our human nature.  We have noted that this in itself is a facet of our nature as creators-we create the meanings of our experience, almost instinctively.  The burgeoning field of cognitive science is proposing more sophisticated and differentiated explanations of how this meaning-creating activity is grounded in the ordinary functioning of our minds.  One of their major concepts is the strange sounding term, “hyperactive agency detection,” HAAD.  In our evolutionary past, when we had to deal with both predators and prey, it was in our survival interest to assume that there are agents all around us, often on the basis of scant or unreliable evidence.  If we walk in a forest and hear crunching sounds behind us, it is more useful than not to assume that an unfriendly animal is making the noise.  Even if we are wrong most of the time, that assumption is a better adaptive strategy, because of the one time in ten in which there is indeed a harmful agent in the woods.  Not to make that assumption is dangerous for us. False positives in this case are no problem.  How many times have you gotten up in the night to investigate a strange sound, relieved to find that it was the wind rattling a window rather than an intruder seeking entry?  (Boyer 2002, 75-77).  HAAD may also explain the perennial tendency to locate conspiracies and also an intelligence, a personal God, behind this world.

Hyper-sensitive agent detection is fundamental to our cognitive processes.  It is a way of talking about what Deacon calls the anomaly of evolution-a species that wonders about its place in the world.  Some researches believe that HAAD points to the source of religion.  In earlier times, many of these detected agents were treated as powers, even deities.  Cognitive science of religion studies this propensity to assume a sacred or even divine agency in the world and in our own lives.  Nowadays, we consider most of these powers to be causes and therefore the object of scientific study.  Accordingly, a cognitive science of science might argue that science is grounded in this same search for agency, not as a divine energy, but as causes that underlie the phenomena and events of our world.  The physician, the physicist, and the rabbi/priest may indeed all be expressing the same fundamental character of the human mind, namely, to investigate underlying agency in the world.  For the physician that agency may be bacteria, for the physicist, the behavior of particles, and for the rabbi/priest, God.

A second concept from the cognitive sciences is that of “folk ontology,” also called “intuitive ontology,” which is a way of describing the fundamental cognitive resources that we bring to our meaning-creating activity.  Human development studies suggest what is called “folk” physics, biology, and psychology, for example.  These terms refer to what seem to be spontaneous, primordial ways in which we map our world.  We tend to divide the world up into such categories as person, animal, plant, natural and artificial.  We ascribe properties, or “default assumptions” to each of these.  “Persons” are said to be intentional, to possess bodies, and to be mobile.  “Plants” possess bodies, but are neither mobile nor intentional.  The old quiz game, “animal, mineral, or vegetable” draws on this folk ontology.  Folk religion is a component of it (Barrett 2000, 31; Guthrie 2002; Anttonen 2002).

There are many interrelationships and contrasts between these folk categories, and there is an intriguing dialectic between folk ontology and sophisticated scientific and theological learning.  Folk ontology is deeply rooted, a “default” worldview, whereas science and theology require extensive training and learning.  The folk theories are not the product of self-conscious theorizing, they are intuitive; but they function for people as if they were constructed theories (Churchland 1996, 290).  Folk theory and sophisticated learning exert a critique on each other, but they are also complementary.  Folk theory is not everlasting nor is it unchangeable, but it is primordial.  The important thing to note here is that it is a built-in strategy of constructing the meaning of our world.

Whether it is the Pleistocene hunter, the cardiologist, or the seeker of God, the issue is meaning.  The issue is “our place in the world” (Deacon) or evaluating the world (Rolston 1987, 25) as discerned by what James called the “essentially teleological mechanism” that is our mind.  We have no choice whether we will exercise this mechanism; we seem determined to do so, and as we go about exercising our agency detector, whether within the framework of the primary cognitive resources of our folk worldview or sophisticated learning, we are dependent on language.  The shared virtual world we live in depends on language.

The Context of Wholeness and Richness 

Before we proceed further, however, we must be clear that creating meaning takes place in an ambience that is wholistic and richly textured.  “Wholistic” refers to the fact that our experience is an entire milieu, a “blooming, buzzing” whole that comes upon us as a rich mixture of dimensions.  The “more ideas than we have words” is a signal of the texture of our experience.  As James said, we have to break it up into pieces in order to grasp it.  We cannot settle for pieces, however, because the point of meaning is that it relates the pieces to the whole.  As an analogy, we come to know the meaning of our legs and our arms and our genes, but knowing these pieces is not enough for us.  We need to know how arms, legs, and genes relate to living our whole life in the world.

Our search for meaning must meet a wide array of human needs.  Meeting these needs is a matter of our survival.  The search for meaning is embedded in our strategies of survival. Meaning must direct our morality, guide us in dealing with what we recognize as good and bad.  Meaning must also illuminate our interpersonal world, our relationships with other people, our sociality.  It must provide us knowledge of our world and our own nature, that is, it must be science.  Meaning must also enable us to do what we want to do, to control our world through its technological expression.  No one of these domains is the whole of our life-experience; but they are all embedded in that experience; that is why we cannot settle for single-domain meaning.  Our morality cannot be alienated from our science, nor from our interpersonal relationships.  Our science is required to mesh with our social needs and with the conduct of our personal lives.  Our relgion must mesh as well.  Saint Augustine was correct when he said that unless everything means, nothing means.  Little wonder that we need more than science, more than religion, more than morality, more than interpersonal happiness.  We need them all, working together to accomplish what Augustine perceived-the meaning of everything.  Or, to put it another way, our lives do indeed present us with an array of fragments, but we intuitively insist that the fragments form a mosaic, if only we can imagine how they fit together.   Some of us will devote ourselves to a Theory of Everything, while others of us work on mosaics.

The upshot of all this is that we have no choice, if we are to make meaning of experience, but to go beyond the empirical fragments and pieces.  Ricoeur says we have to stretch the words we do have in order to include the richness of our ideas.  Our survival depends on this stretching.  Without it, the mosaic will never emerge. Nothing will ever mean, to use Augustine’s phrase.  Stretching is dangerous, because it requires that we leave the security of the fragments we know and enter a much less certain realm of language, ideas, and behaviors.  I characterize this stretching as a leap.  The Existentialists speak of a “leap of faith” and I am suggesting that the leap is also epistemological and linguistic.   The leap is made necessary by our survival demands in the face of the extraordinary richness of our life-situations in the situation of having too few words to express that richness.

We can point to several examples of what this means for the religion-and-science discussions.

(1) Intelligent design theory and the anthropic principle—don’t tell us enough about God and our lives.  Why evil?  Why doesn’t the world work better if it is designed?  We must leap farther from the fragments that cosmology and mathematics offer us.

(2) Genetic determinism—doesn’t tell us enough.  The accountability for deciding and acting.

(3) Neurotheology—doesn’t tell us enough.  The capacity to experience the holy, but how to live a life?

(4) Scientific medicine—doesn’t tell us enough.  What does disease mean for the purpose of my life?

In all of these instances, more stretching is in order; a larger leap is necessary if we are to fashion adequate meaning.

Our Language   

Faced with more ideas than we have words for, and challenged to fashion meanings that are commensurate with the rich texture of our lives in the world, our cognitive structures-both intuitive and educated—are triggered to seek meaning.  Language is not the whole of the meaning-creating process, but it is certainly essential and perhaps the most important part.  How do we proceed? Two strategies of our language interest me here; I shall call them the strategies of leaping and dragging.  They are not really two strategies; they are two facets of the same strategy-insisting that two things or two domains are related, even that they are in some sense identical.  We have noted this strategy at several points in these evening sessions.  Dragging is really a synonym for metaphor-recall the moving vans, and baggage transfers, metaphores, in Athens.

OncoMouse and Christ—a leap involved; this mouse is figure of modern science and a figure of salvation; this mouse dies in behalf of us all.  Dragging involved; the two domains-science and salvation—merge and interact with each other.  The dragging and the leap make a statement of both positive and negative meaning; when science is understood as salvation, we glimpse, for example, how obsessed we are with healing ourselves and how we even worship the medicine that can bring healing.  Healing is enlarged to include embodied well-being; it is also perverted as a thing to be manipulated.  The meaning of Christ is also given new meaning.

Human Beings as Cyborg—the machine and the human. 
Human and technological/ artificial. 
Breaking down the folk dualisms. 
Leap and dragging.
We are in the realm of metaphor and the metaphoric process, as well as symbol.   Leaping—back and forth from the “is” to the “is not.”  Dragging—from domains of that which is human and that which is artificial-technological.

Both leaping and dragging are tense operations, even violent.  Ricoeur, as I have said, speaks of this as a process of self-destructing.  Mary Gerhart and Allan Russell, to whom I am indebted for the term “metaphoric process,” speak of “willfully distorting” “worlds of meaning.”  New meanings emerge, they write, because “what is the case was not the case earlier and what was the case no longer is” (Gerhart and Russell 1984, 113-14).  The effect of the metaphorical process is “to warp, fold, spindle, and perhaps mutilate our world of meanings.   What an outrage!” (Ibid.)

Self-destructing and willfully distorting have to do with a relationship between what is literal and what seeks to go beyond literalness.  In Deacon’s terms, between the facts of our experience and the virtual world in which we place the facts.  Between the fragments of our experience and the mosaic that is always under construction.  There should be no mistake about the importance of the literal.  It is our starting-point, since it underlies all that is given in our experience; it is essential.  I intend no denigration of the literal.  We must go beyond it because of the empirical richness and wholeness of our lives, but the literal fact of our experience is our entree to that world of more ideas than we have words for.

Examples: Cyborg fractures the dualisms of our folk ontology that separates persons and nature, nature and artificial into self-contained domains, with impassible boundaries.  Taboos, the “yuck factor.”

Similarly, Onco Mouse-a laboratory animal genetically engineered in very precise and controlled fashion-it takes linguistic violence to turn it into a figure of science and religion.

II.  Created Co-Creator—Invading and Stretching the Literal   

As I speak of Created Co-Creator as science and symbol, I recall much of what we discussed in earlier sessions.  I think it is appropriate to end the series on this note.

CCC and Science

The image of CCC is impossible apart from the scientific ideas of biocultural evolution, theories about genes and cultures, neuroscience, and the social sciences.

I say CCC is metaphor for the meaning of nature.  This is certainly a leap from this empirical creature, Homo sapiens, to the meaning of the natural order, interpreted in the light of the sciences of complexity and self-generation. Dragging from the domains of genetic evolution, biochemistry, thermodynamic theory, neuroscience, and the study of culture.  The image of the CCC would never emerge if it were not for the warping, folding, spindling, and mutilation of the literal meanings that inhabit these discrete fields of scientific endeavor—even in the sciences that pertain.  The biochemistry of autocatalytic processes must be stretched in order to reach the idea of self-generation and creation of culture.  Terrence Deacon the philosopher can step back and say that the human brain is an evolutionary anomaly that creates a virtual world of ideas, but the neurobiological processes that Terence Deacon the scientist observes have no such message embedded in their biochemistry.  In a comparable manner, Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg speak of cognitive operators, operators representing “neural structures which operate on quanta of experience to organize them in specific ways” (d’Aquili 1983, 253).  They identify six such operators.  Holistic, causal, abstractive, binary, formal quantitative, value. (Ibid, 249).

These operators produce, for example, the formation of myths, causal relations, binary oppositions, etc.  (ibid, 248, 253).  There is nothing in the brain scans with which they work, however, that is identifiable as such as one of these operators.  Even for these scientists, it takes considerable dragging and leaping to get from brain scan to cognitive operators and even more to get to myth and ritual, or binary oppositions, some of the most powerful tools by which CCC create their virtual worlds.  But if it were not for this leaping and dragging, we would never get that virtual world built.

CCC as Symbol

As I have said several times, I follow Paul Tillich’s theory of symbols.  He spoke of a symbol in terms of four functions: (1) It “points beyond itself to something else. (2) It “participates in that to which it points. (3) It “opens up levels of reality which otherwise are closed to us. (4) It “unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul which correspond to the dimensions and elements of reality.”

The CCC takes its origins with this biocultural creature, Homo sapiens, and places it in a very large framework—the creature who epitomizes nature creating itself self-consciously and intentionally.  This goes farther than Deacon—the important thing about us is not that we alone are an evolutionary anomaly in that we create virtual worlds in our language.  The important thing is that we are the anomaly that discloses what all of the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdoms are about as part of a natural process that creates its world freely and purposefully.  CCC as symbol points to this.

CCC is not discourse about the co-creating of the world, but it is embodied in that creating activity.  CCC is not a proposition with which one can agree or disagree; it is a representation of who we are and what we are actually doing that one finds either illuminating and enriching or repugnant and to be rejected.

The symbol opens up levels of embodiment, including embodiment of technology as well as of stardust and genes.  The symbol opens up the question of what sources this creating ability and where its accountability lies.  Since these are religious questions, the CCC shows itself to be a religious symbol.

Source and Accountability

The question of source quickly moves us to awe. What is the well of creativity and power from which a self-generating nature emerges, beginning with the Big Bang and the Primal Soup (or its equivalent), emerging in our time with the self-conscious human techno-creator?  The question of Source does not tolerate small answers; that is why it is essentially a religious question.

The question of accountability becomes the question of purpose.  If pondering the source of our creating moves us in the direction of awe, accountability takes us toward dread.  We recognize our own finitude and fallibility on the one hand, and the gravity of our creating on the other hand.  This dynamic, gifted creator can increase well-being for the planet and its people; it can also create living hell for the planetary community.  Creating can be eco-friendly or hostile, it can be justice -friendly or hostile.  It can sow seeds of health for future generations or seeds of death.  Little wonder that we prefer small answers to the question of Source, so that we can derive small answers to the question of accountability.  (Sol Katz’s concern for “global morality” and “secular morality”).  In the process of shaping the virtual world of our purposes, the CCC discloses what science and technology and morality and sociality are for.

Source and accountability questions turn out to be, in the jargon of the time, “all about wholesomeness.”  The CCC is a “co-creator.”  You will perhaps recall that in the third presentation I spoke of accountability and wholesomeness n terms of four “co-s”-with the self, with the human community, with whole creation, and with God.  I said these are four covenants of belonging that speak of source and accountability, and they all point to the issue of wholesomeness as the central issue, the issue that really counts.

Here is where I part company with some of the leading commentators of the day-specifically, Francis Fukuyama, Leon Kass, and Bill McKibben.  In one way or another, they all speak of the CCC as a threat to some essential human dignity and selfhood that evolution or God has bestowed upon us from the past.  McKibben speaks for them all when he cries out “Enough!  We must pull back and be content with less!”  He urges us to “stand pat” where we are (McKibben 2003, 109-10). Pulling back is not enough. Not enough for the well-being of the CCC, not enough to fulfill the purposes of the CCC.  It’s too bad that “Wholesomeness” is such a banal-sounding word; it doesn’t produce the attention-grabbing sound byte that McKibben achieved with “Enough!”  But wholesomeness is what it is about.  It is not about pulling back and defending a traditional idea of human identity; it’s about pushing forward toward a more wholesome co-creating.

The wholesomeness agenda is daunting.  I have not set forth a blueprint for achieving wholesomeness.  I said in that first presentation that I am not about constructing a strategic plan for social action.  I am constructing a theory of what it means to be human, and deriving some obvious implications from that theory.  The error of Kass, Fukuyama, and McKibben is not their judgment that something is amiss today; their error lies in a faulty understanding of what humanity is about.

This is what the Created Co-Creator is about-rooted in the knowledge provided by the natural and social sciences, situated in the cultural crisis of technocultural misdirection, and driven by our hard wiring for meaning; it is fundamentally a metaphor and a symbol.  It aims to work in our situation of having more ideas than we have words for.  It offers itself as a possible way to construct our virtual world.

What does this Created Co-Creator look like?  What forms can this symbol take?   I think we should re-interpret our religious paradigms in terms of this symbol-Jesus, Moses, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, Mohammed, the Buddha, and the like.  In the meantime, I propose another one, at least provisionally:  “The Cosmic Mestiza” (see www.metanexus.net/digest/2004_04_01.htm) as depicted by Lynn Randolph.  Randolph has written, you recall,

“In a society that increasingly is dependent upon the link between cognition and seeing through amazing new imaging technologies, I want to create images that trouble, resist and disturb and offer provisional visions of love, hope, and well-being. . . .I’m trying to create metaphors that chart new ways of thinking and change the symbolic order.  Visual metaphors call upon the beholder to combine and synthesize experiences that [are] fragmented or dissected”““(Randolph, ibid., 1, 3).

Without symbols that can chart new ways of thinking, we will remain confused and beleaguered, hard-wired to construct our virtual worlds, but overwhelmed by our having more ideas than we have words for.  Join with me, whether affirming the symbol of CCC or not, to seek new symbols that can break through to new ways of thinking.


Anttonen, Veikko.  20002  “Identifying the Generative Mechanisms of Religion:  The Issue of Origin Revisited,” Current Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion, ed. Illka Pyysiainen and Veikko Anttonen, pp. 14-37 (New York:  Continuum).

Barrett, Justin.  2000.  “Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion,” in Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4 (January) 1: 29-34.

Boyer, Pascal.  2002.  “Why do Gods and Spirits Matter at All?” Current Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion, ed. Illka Pyysiainen and Veikko Anttonen, pp. 68-92         (New York:  Continuum).

Churchland, Patricia Smith.  1986.  Neurophilosophy:  Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain.  (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press).

Deacon, Terrence.  1997.  The Symbolic Species:  The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: W. W. Norton)

Gerhart, Mary, and Russell, Allan Melvin.  1984.  Metaphoric Process: The Creation of Scientific and Religious Understanding (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University).

________________________.  2001.  New Maps for Old: Explorations in Science and Religion (New York: Continuum).

Guthrie, Stewart.  2002.  “Animal Animism:  Evolutionary Roots of Religious Cognition,” Current Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion, ed. Illka Pyysiainen and         Veikko Anttonen, pp. 38-67   (New York:  Continuum).

James, William.  1962.  “Reflex Action and Theism,” The Limits of Language, ed. Walker Gibson (New York: Hill and Wang).

McKibben, Bill.  2003.  Enough:  Staying Human in an Engineered Age.  New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Randolph, Lynn.  1996.  “Cyborgs, Wonder Woman, and Techno-Angels: A Series of Spectacles,”  unpublished paper presented on April 23, 1996, at the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture, Rutgers University. See also website:    www.lynnrandolph.com

Ricoeur, Paul.  1976.  Interpretation Theory:  Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University).

Rolston, Holmes, III.  1987.   Science and Religion:  A Critical Survey (New York: Random House), p. 6