Incomplete Science, The Body, and Indwelling Spirit

Incomplete Science, The Body, and Indwelling Spirit

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Metaviews 081. 2000.09.15. Approximately 3266 words.

Below and after the fact is another contribution to the FutureVisions consultation.

Writing on Incomplete Science: The Body and Indwelling Spirit, isMartha R Herbert, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatric neurologist at theMassachusetts General Hospital in Boston and at McLean Hospital inBelmont MA. Herbert specializes in patients with learning anddevelopmental disorders. She is also Vice-Chair of the Board ofDirectors of the Council for Responsible Genetics. She received hermedical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians andSurgeons, her pediatrics training at New York Hospital-CornellUniversity Medical Center, and her neurology training at theMassachusetts General Hospital, where she remains and is on thefaculty of the Harvard Medical School. At MGH she pursues researchon brain structure abnormalities in developmental disorders,particularly autism. She also works on health and ecological risksof genetically modified food, and on neurotoxins and braindevelopment. She pursues an ongoing critique of geneticreductionism, and is working on elucidating parallels amongalternatives to genetic reductionism at different biological levels,such as the ecological level (sustainable agriculture or regenerativeecology) and the level of the human body (biopsychosocial approachto neurobehavioral disorders, mind-body or somatically groundedapproach to therapies). Prior to her medical training she obtainedan interdisciplinary doctorate from the History of Consciousnessprogram at UC Santa Cruz, studying evolution and development oflearning processes in biology and culture.

Herbert contrasts two parallel projects in science (as well as inreligion), what she calls a control-oriented, disconnected beliefsystem versus a stewartship-oriented, connected belief system. Sheconcludes this carefully argued essay calling for a spiritual andcultural framework that helps us live better, but with theambivalence on never really having control. She challenges us topreserve and even regenerate our biological and cultural legacies asbodies of knowledge that are subtle, complex, somatically andenvironmentally grounded. And she wants to hold science andtechnology to the same critical and moral standards. She writes:

This cannot mean an abandonment of the cognitive advances we havemade. In particular, scientific advance has allowed us unprecedentedaccess to levels of material reality not immediately accessible tothe human sensorium. Our newly gained access to mediated perceptionof levels from the subatomic to the galactic is a gift of greataesthetic merit.

I have several more such papers that I will post over the next fewweeks. Of course, the entire collection is available online at

— Billy Grassie


Science can be considered as a particular extension of pervasivehuman activities of thinking and problem solving. Systematic andrigorous testing of observations, carried out by science, is notunique but simply in some respects more careful. But scientificknowledge is inherently incomplete. Rigor is not achieved equallyfor all components of a system. Components of a subsystem arecharacterized with the remainder staying in background.Characterizations of larger systems tend to be statistical ratherthan precise.

A careful scientist may make sweeping inferences and articulate hopesand desires inspired by scientific findings, but scientific claimsthemselves should be more strictly constrained by the limits of theevidence itself. The inferences scientists and other people makefrom science, however, are often confused with the science itself.These inferences reflect much more than the science or the materialworld studied. They reflect belief systems that are stronglyculturally conditioned. These belief systems shape and are shaped byevery aspect of experience of body, self, other human beings, andnature. These belief systems feed back upon the science and shape howscience proceeds. They shape what questions are asked and what arenot, what is noticed and what is not, what can be spoken and whatcannot, what is thinkable and what is not.

In what follows I will schematize some opposing worldviews that canshape science, and sketch their divergent implications. The firstworldview I will call a _control-oriented disconnected_ beliefsystem. The second I will call a _stewardship oriented connected_belief system.

Underlying much of the scientific enterprise has been a set ofbeliefs: that we can control nature through science, that this isdesirable and good, and that this control will end human suffering.This belief system also tends to include negative assumptions aboutnature. Nature is limited, dumb. Human engineering is superior tonature’s. In order to progress it is necessary to transcend nature.

Negative assumptions about nature include negative assumptions aboutour own nature, both our psychological nature, and the nature of ourbodies. Human nature is nasty, selfish, greedy and lustful.Natural impulses are anti-social, and civilization requires that theybe reined in and controlled. The body is distasteful, a source ofpain, appetite, sex, sickness, suffering and death. The body’spleasures are sinful and dangerous, and must be reined in andcontrolled; the body’s pains should be fixed and escaped.

A schematic of a spiritual belief system consistent with thiscontrol-oriented approach to nature is of a remote diety, not rootedin body or place, with transcendence or escape as a spiritual goal,and with discipline of body and mind imposed by external authority

An opposing belief system holds that we can play a role of nurturanceand stewardship toward nature, but that control is an impossible,misguided goal. The goal of minimizing (not eliminating) sufferingis approached in these terms through a balanced integration oftechnical, cultural, economic, community and spiritual approaches.

From this point of view nature is fascinating in its intricacy, andcomplexity. Eager curiosity is balanced with humility about thelimits of what we know compared to what exists and may yet surpriseus. Nature is respectfully queried for lessons arising from thecomplexity of matter, of planetary structure, and of the longevolution of organisms and ecosystems. Characterizing howinterventions will ramify throughout a system is an intrinsic part ofscientific inquiry and technical planning.

Human beings are seen as having inherent drives toward love,cooperation, curiosity, creativity and conviviality. Rage,impatience, self-centeredness and greed are seen as borne of fear,isolation, danger, humiliation and deprivation whose opposites, love,genuine connection, safety, respect and heartfelt generosity, can inprinciple minimize these defensive reactions.

The human body and mind are understood to have great potential forphysical, mental and spiritual development. Every individual has theintrinsic capacity to cultivate these potentials to the extent thateffort is applied, with high refinement and subtlety rewardingsustained commitment. Curiosity about the body, how it moves, how itsenses, how it feels in the many senses of that word, is encouragedand incorporated into cumulative cultural practices. Sexuality, oneof the body’s many capacities, is sacred but not taboo.

A schematic of a spiritual practice consistent with the stewardshipapproach would ground spiritual practice in human relationship,bodily experience and connectedness with nature and would createcooperative modes of interacting.

While these two opposing belief systems are ends of a spectrum, andwhile fascinating and even perverse combinations of elements of bothperspectives can be found, the stark opposition of vantage points canhelp pose questions.

As an adherent, to the best of my capacity, of the second beliefsystem, I ask of adherents of the first set of beliefs, why do youhave such a fierce need for control? In real life attempts to engagethis discussion I have encountered difficulties, as the question doesnot resonate with people who appear to be, to use current parlance,control freaks. In my experience such people do not characterizethemselves in this manner, no matter how strongly they may comeacross in this way to others. At best they might take the value ofcontrol for granted and wonder why there should be any question aboutit. An alternative seems inconceivable to them. I have thus beenleft with my own inferences about the answer to my question, which Iwill share.

I suspect that the need, indeed the drive, for control comes fromdeep-seated disconnectedness. From infancy connection to other humanbeings, to the body’s own sensorium and movement and expressiverepertoire, and to nature have been thwarted. Infants may not betouched, may spend long periods of time alone in a crib in a room bythemselves. Toddlers and children may be seen and not heard, andtreated as annoyances and as defective adults. Achievement may be achild’s only route to recognition; open-ended wonderment may bedisdained as unproductive and therefore threatening. Nature may beseen (if it is seen at all by city dwellers) as dirty or dangerous,as undifferentiated and uninteresting. Only technical experts mayseem to know about nature, and the interesting parts of nature becomenot those that can be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears, andsmelled and tasted and felt, but rather only those aspects that canbe discerned with the assistance of complex technologies. There isoften no tangible personal experience of body-based transformation ofperception or emotion, and the body thus comes to be experienced asstatic, and even as remote. Only technical experts seem endowed withthe power to change the body, and only from the outside; the body issubmitted to these interventions as a passive disconnected object.

For people who grew up like this, power and potency are achievedthrough devices, and escape from the boring, aggravating immanence ofthe body. Powers beyond the body are cultivated but powers withinthe body are not. If athletics becomes a preoccupation, achievementof quantifiable milestones is sought, how many miles run, how fast,how many peaks climbed, how many weights lifted, but not quality ofexperience of the activity, not the movement of the limbs and torsowhile running and the many possible orientations of the pelvis andhips, not the view from the trails one races to complete, not thesubtle and varied potentialities of human biomechanics whileweight-training. Endorphins released by effort are noted and soughtas a drug but not wondered at, explored. The body becomes anotherproductive mechanism.

The inherent capability of the human body/mind/spirit for moreintegrated meaningful experience may on occasion break through thisdriven mindset. People however may not be prepared to enlarge uponthese epiphanies, because every aspect of their life and beliefsystems may co-conspire against such spiritual opening; they thuseasily revert back to a more defended existence.

Disconnectedness enables domination. It enables one to dominate, andit sets one up to be dominated. Disconnected from feeling and fromcompassion, one dominates others. Disconnected from one’s power toimagine alternatives, to reject humiliation, and to resist, onesubmits to domination.

Disconnection also enables domination of nature. The drive tosubjugate nature seems basic and urgent. Anyone or anything thatslows this drive, even asks it to pause and reflect, is experiencedas a threat. The struggle to defeat that threat may parade as thepinnacle of rationality against primitive nature, of science againstemotion. But the underlying emotional force behind the urgent andintolerant tone of this struggle is a primordial preverbal inchoatefear.

Insofar as science and technology are driven by thisdisconnectedness, they are likely to ride roughshod over human,cultural, ecological and spiritual considerations. And we indeedhave unprecedented power to override all of these concerns. Nuclearand chemical technologies, biotechnology and nanotechnology all havesweeping global ramifications. The power that now exists tomanipulate the smallest genetic, molecular and atomic levels ofliving and inanimate matter is not something that adherents of thesecond connected, stewardship belief system feel comfortableleaving in the hands of the first disconnected, control-orientedbelief system.

Advocates of germline engineering for the sake of humanimprovement, notably extremists like the Extropy Society, are afrightening example of disconnected control oriented people who thinkthey can do better than Mother Nature and do not appreciate theirdeep ignorance of the potentialities of the bodies we have, thebreathtaking limitations of our current and foreseeable knowledge ofgenetics, or the magnitude of their intolerance and hubris. Thesepeople confuse constraint with deficiency. They do not comprehendthat instead of escaping the limits of our body and the limits ofnature, we need to reinhabit our bodies and our earth, and fall inlove with the constrained but still infinite potentialities of both.Constraint is the basis of art. You do not criticize a violinbecause it is not a piano. Instead you admire the artful elicitationof the full potentialities of the instrument you have.

There are restricted settings where sheer technological control isappropriate. A pilot should be able to control an airplane to withintolerances allowing survival. A comatose patient or a patient insurgery can have physiological parameters closely regulated from theoutside. Yet even within the bounds of these situations control isnot complete. Control becomes altogether inappropriate when thinkingof raising a child, encouraging artistic creativity or regeneratingan ecosystem.

I think that the fundamental millennial task is to regenerateconnectedness and to reorient every aspect of human enterprise frombeing driven by fear to being guided by love. This regeneration willrequire spiritual, cultural and somatic work as well as technicalexpertise. Indeed, technology needs to be reevaluated fromspiritual, cultural, somatic and ecological perspectives.

This cannot mean an abandonment of the cognitive advances we havemade. In particular, scientific advance has allowed us unprecedentedaccess to levels of material reality not immediately accessible tothe human sensorium. Our newly gained access to mediated perceptionof levels from the subatomic to the galactic is a gift of greataesthetic merit.

More judgement and forebearance is required when the question arisesof transforming science into technology. This transformation needsto be done with more restraint, and from a connected rather than adisconnected ground. How do we use our technical power elegantly andappropriately, rather than on trivial impulse and for greed andprofit?

We need to learn how to have meaningful interaction among sciencesdealing with multiple levels and scales of the material world.Learning some of the mechanisms of operation of smaller units ofmatter, like genes or molecules, has become an end in itself, as ifit could replace rather than augment other kinds of knowledge. Ithas been confused with gaining knowledge that is more fundamental.This is a deep mistake. Let me explain through examples.

A person who has a spiritual epiphany has been touched in someprofound way. If we had instruments sensitive enough, we coulddetect accompanying alterations in neural circuitry, neurotransmitterconcentrations, and gene expression, as well as in other largerlevels such as breathing, heart rate and skin conductance. Mindaffects matter. Yet even if we could thoroughly characterize aspiritual experience at these levels, we would not then recommendthat we engineer spiritual experiences. We witness the hazards ofdecontextualized, engineered psychological/spiritual questing in thedrug crisis. The best way to achieve a spiritual transformation isthrough spiritual discipline and lived experience, and will probablyremain so into eternity.

Intervention at multiple levels can change a system’s functioning.Elegance in technology should not be equated with intervention at thetiniest molecular or genetic level. It may be that the system hasthe capacity to transform itself more elegantly than we ever mightwith our genetic meddling if we only aimed to find another level atwhich to tweak it. The role of molecular and genetic inquiry in thiskind of elegant technology model would be to learn more about thesystem’s physiology and regulatory mechanisms, so that more complexpathways would be better understood, and points where regulationcould be modulated might be found. Monitoring molecular, genetic andother technology-mediated markers might help fine-tune suchmodulatory interventions, but might not be the routes of interventionthemselves.

The drive to control the tiniest parts of nature seems mostparsimoniously comprehensible not in terms of scientific progress butrather in terms of economic pressure. Such tiny components of naturecan be patented and privatized. Regulatory system-basedinterventions, on the other hand, are less easily turned intocommodities for market. This suggests a rather profoundcontradiction or incompatibility between market forces and theintegrity of complex biological systems. I pose this as a conundrumto ponder.

Regulatory system-based elegant interventions have more in commonthan do molecular and genetic engineering with practices encompassedin indigenous knowledge systems. For instance, traditionalagricultural practices tend to involve not monoculture butmulti-cropping, and integration of cultural and symbolic withagricultural considerations. Integrity of family and community aswell as soil and agroecology are maintained in an integrated fashion.A large-scale study in China reported recently in the journal NATUREfound that by planting two rice varieties together instead of justone, the devastating blast fungus was reduced not only in thefields themselves by 94% but also strikingly in the entire region.This is a relatively simple application of a much more complexrepertoire of traditional agricultural techniques, yet even thispared down intervention had dramatic effects. Traditional ricefarmers in Asia report that it is the hybrid and not the traditionalrice varieties that are subject to fungus, and they see theimposition of hybrid and now genetically engineered rice (impositionof these innovations always being accompanied by heavy-handedeconomic pressure) as devastating bioecocultural integrity anddiversity.

Indigenous knowledge systems develop over long periods of time bythoughtful participant-observers who take account of phenomena incontext. This is a different variant of human problem solvingcapabilities than the _scientific or experimental method,_ but theknowledge it yields has some distinct advantages. Chineseacupuncture is another indigenous knowledge system that was generatedby cumulative complex observation of self as well as other, internalmonitoring as well as external manipulation. Its system of meridiansand points can now be detected with modern electrical equipment. Yetit is doubtful that these meridians and points would have beendiscovered de novo by scientists who work with instrumentation butwithout the guidance of their own cultivated somatic sensibilities.Certain classes of somatic and psychological knowledge, at least,require the inclusion of careful, skilled self-observation. Andvalidation of these knowledge systems with modern instruments doesnot replicate the more comprehensive framework in which the knowledgewas traditionally embodied. Electronic instruments cannot train thefingers to be sensitive to acupuncture points, nor do they cultivatethe complex system of practices incorporated in Chinese medicine,such as Chi Kung and T’ai Chi, which have cultural meaning as well ashealth benefits. Who is to say whether acupuncture uprooted from itsfull context is more purified and true, rather than more weakened andlost?

Spiritual, moral and cultural frameworks can help us to live togetherin peace and goodwill within a world we will never fully know orcontrol, however much we may learn. If we are to survive, we need tolet go of the drive for control and private gain, and regeneratesustainable and meaningful ways of life. We have already lost everso much of the biological and cultural richness that could help usachieve this. Our millennial challenge is to preserve and regeneratehuman capabilities and bodies of knowledge that are subtle, complex,somatically and environmentally grounded, and culturally andspiritually meaningful. And our millennial challenge is also toreevaluate science and technology, transforming them as necessary(possibly in major ways), so that they help regenerate rather thandestroy cultural and biological diversity and biogeochemicalintegrity. Sensitive thoughtful grounding in our own bodily being isan important foundation for these regenerative efforts.

Martha R. Herbert, M.D.,

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