Quantum Humanism: The Reality of the Atom and the Mind through a Dooyeweerdian Lens

Quantum Humanism: The Reality of the Atom and the Mind through a Dooyeweerdian Lens

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


This paper advances the possibility that the apparent logical fissure emergent in reductionist thought coming from orthodox science of the twentieth century and the application of the scientific method is manifest in what we know and do not understand in quantum mechanics can be liaised to an intellectual percept though the perspective offered by Herman Dooyeweerd’s theory of Modal Aspects. In simple terms this means that while we do not know what complexity is in reality, most of us are ready to agree that we live in a complex world. This complex world of ours we do contend is the Universe. In this Universe at one point in time in the evolution of human thought it seemed intuitive and reasonable to think and believe that the Earth was flat and that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Most of us have by now accepted that an Earth centred Universe was a fallacy of those archaic dark times. Why would we think that humans born of the earth, and returning to it upon death, are any different from the rest of Matter in the Universe?

When introducing a new theory, and in the particular case of bridging two disciplines, those of quantum theory and modal aspects, there are challenges caused by the fact that there is yet no terminology or translation tables available. However it would be helpful to think that when looking at phenomena, be it physical or behavioural, one needs to take particular account of the context. When dealing with physical phenomena, say an atom, part of the context is comprised of physical variables such as temperature or other surrounding Matter. In the particular case of atoms, these do not exhibit macroscopic wave nature at ordinary high temperatures such as room temperature, and do bounce around like billiard balls. Take the case of a sodium atom at room temperature a bit further, if this sodium atom is surrounded by normal atmosphere, it will not remain very long in that state as it will react with the water and oxygen in the atmosphere, and it is only within a vacuum chamber that one can isolate single sodium atoms at room temperature as a vapour. However when a sufficiently dilute sodium gas cloud is isolated in vacuum and cooled to less than a millionth of a degree of absolute zero these same atoms will exhibit observable wave nature, and can be manipulated to form an atom-laser, that is, a beam of coherent Matter analogous to the better known photon laser as demonstrated by Ketterle (2006). However the sodium atom in an atom-laser is indistinguishable from a sodium atom in table salt ionically (chemically) bound to a chlorine atom, they differ however in their physical and environmental contexts, and thus displays different interactions and behaviours. One can look at this atom in the two different contexts as expressing different Modal Aspects.

Quantum mechanics and quantum theories do not appear intuitive and have throughout their gradual evolution during the century of their formulation met with considerable resistance, opposition and disbelief from well-established and credible scientific and philosophical scholars. Nonetheless the success of the various elements of quantum mechanics theory in explaining observed and measurable phenomena have stood their own ground and advanced the cause that we refer to as knowledge. Those arguing against the validity of the various aspects of quantum theory have gone to either rationalize their own beliefs by various intellectual stratagems, or stood corrected, learned and went on towards continuing the exploration and expansion of human knowledge.

In this paper we aim to enrich this exploration and expansion by introducing a non-reductionist approach to understanding the atom and all reality, based on the work of the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. We start with a premise that seems contrary to past philosophical discourses, and that from an holographic perspective given by a quantum theoretical view of the Universe is however obvious, that is that humans, being part of the Universe, and an organised assembly of specific molecular forms of Matter, function in the same Aspects and are subject to their laws in the same manner as any other Matter including microscopic Matter.

Based on Dooyeweerdian thinking we postulate that all things, including atoms and their subatomic components function within a number of Aspects (Quantitative, Spatial, Physical, Kinematic, Lingual, Biotic, Sensitive, Analytical, Formative, Social, Economic, Aesthetic, Juridical, Ethical, Pistic). The Aspects provide us with a distinct meaning of the entities or events we encounter in life with the atom being one such thing. They also give us distinct conceptual frameworks from which we can understand, describe and discuss the world including the atom. Finally, they provide us with clarity which allows us to make distinctions between different things thus avoid overlap. This last potential is particularly useful to clarify the often confusing discussion surrounding the nature of the atom. Immediately, this approach recognises that things, like the atom, are not simple but can be quite complex and function in a reality that is multi aspectual.

The notion of Aspects is introduced in terms of these being ways of describing things or modes in which things like the atom function. A number of important features of Aspects are introduced including their equal importance, dependency on each other, order amongst aspects, and their irreducibility. At this point it is natural to say that atoms respond to all Aspects. However, we accept that entities respond, function or exhibit behaviour in these Aspects in varying ways. Some Aspects are more relevant than others when we try and account for the meaning of these entities. This proposition opens the way for introducing the notions of the “Qualifying” and “Founding” Aspects, which we will use to describe the nature of the atom. The “Qualifying Aspect”, is the one that captures, more intuitively, than the others the meaning of the atom. However, by itself this Aspect does not tell us anything unique about the atom to distinguish it from other things qualified by the same Aspect. This is where the notion of a “Founding Aspect” is brought in. However, these two types of Aspects are not to be seen as separate when discussing the atom. We argue that they bind together in an inseparable way and use the notions of “Enkapsis” or “Type Law” to elucidate a way of thinking of these. The notions of Qualifying, Founding Aspects and their Enkapsis form the basis from which we discuss and explain the dual nature of the atom.

According to this approach the atom – representing the basic unit of which molecules are assembled – functions in all Aspects as Humans do but with varying degrees of expression. This enables us to introduce the basis for arguing not only the role of Humans in the debate surrounding sub atomic matter but also to gain some insight in what the quantum limit represents. We will argue that even though all creation functions and is subject to the laws of all Aspects they do so in varying ways exhibiting various extents of expression for each particular Aspect. We borrow the terminologies of “Active” and “Passive” aspectual functioning to discuss and understand this issue. The interconnectedness of particles at the sub atomic level is treated under one of the fundamental notions of the whole of the Multi Aspectual philosophy. This notion states that Aspects are inseparable from each other and that within each Aspect there are echoes of all other Aspects. This inseparability opens up the debate for discussing how, why, when and what happens as one atom affects another.

It is expected that a Multi Aspectual framework for understanding atoms as prescribed above will put the atom in a more intuitive position in relation to our understanding of the rest of reality. The atom is no longer to be treated as an alien or paradoxical entity but rather as a thing subject to the same Aspects and Aspectual laws that enable the functioning of the rest of reality. This intuitiveness will hopefully advance Science in ways possibly not imagined before. Finally, this paper will be yet another small step for taking Dooyeweerdian way of thinking to go beyond social sciences into the world of Physics and maybe other fields of human enquiry.

The Scientific Method, Quantum Mechanics and Reality

The exact nature of reality has puzzled humanity for centuries, perhaps even millennia. Science and the scientific method approach claimed to have the right to lead the way to what became known as the quest towards discovering the Holy Grail of reality, a reality that was then assumed to be physical, exact, and measurable. The two major figures who influenced this endeavour were those of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Descartes (1596-1650). The two views were diametrically opposed to each other. Whilst Bacon advocated the dominance of humanity over nature and was proponent of an experimental, qualitative-inductive approach, Descartes on the other hand followed a mathematical-deductive approach driven by the assumption of a perfectly deterministic world. Modern science uses a combination of the two approaches with mixed degrees of success.

Most would regard quantum physics and its new insights as phenomena solely manifest in the microscopic scale and whose consequences need not concern us in the comparatively huge world of our daily life. Quantum physics poses a challenge to our perception but science seems unable to provide an adequate and convincing answer. It may at this point be appropriate to address the nature of the failure. Is the failure inherent in science methodology, or is it a perception failure?

Whatever the nature of the inadequacy we are left with some difficult and still unsettled philosophical dilemmas. They are the dual (corpuscular-wave) nature of matter, the role of the human at this subatomic level, and the subatomic interconnectedness. The first concerns the much debated and often publicised question that matter, all Matter, behaves like both a wave and as a particle. The second one suggests that what you do to one particle can affect a second, even if they are sufficiently separated in space. This suggests that particles are connected over large distances by “non-local” forces acting instantaneously. The third one carries an even greater challenge questioning if there is a role for humans functioning at the level of every day life at the microscopic level of the atom.

If observed phenomena can be explained by models that seems to not be intuitive, what is then in the nature of the so-called intuition that obscures the reality of the evidence? Does the difficulty reside within intuition, reality, or with the evidence itself? In our Universe, what are the characteristics of what we call Matter? How does Matter manifest itself and how do we perceive this Matter?


A fundamental characteristic of atoms as described by quantum mechanics is that they are not simply particles or waves, but exhibit both wave and particle properties. While the interference of light quanta wave packets – photons – to yield dark and light regions can be imagined by thinking that when waves meet crest to trough they cancel each other, or add up in meeting crest to crest or trough to trough, the idea of doing the same with sodium atoms is not intuitive.

In the early twentieth century the very nature of the scholarly understanding of Matter was challenged when Max Planck (1858-1947) proposed that if energy were absorbed and radiated in discrete quanta, the black body radiation spectrum – the spectral distribution of electromagnetic radiation in thermodynamic equilibrium with matter – could be explained, while the equations derived from classical theory where in violent disagreement with the experiment; this was Planck’s contribution to our understanding of the Universe and for which he was awarded the Physics Nobel Prize in 1928. With this first assault on classical physical theory demonstrating its fallibility, Planck thus opened up the door to the elaboration and development of quantum mechanics, which in turn allowed for an adequate accounting of various physical phenomena for which the so-called classical physics comprising mechanics and electromagnetism could offer neither explanation, physical description or cognitive insight.

Max Born (1882-1970) proposed that the quantum mechanical wavefunction determine the probability of the measuring results thus taking the view that quantum mechanics gives only a statistical description. Adding the statistical description to the matrix mechanics of Dirac to the tools available to explore the then new quantum possibility opened up many avenues to both theorists and experimentalists.

Eric Cornel, Wolfgang Ketterle and Carl Wiemar, shared the Physics Nobel Prize in 2001 for experimentally enabling the demonstration of Bose-Einstein condensation in dilute alkali metals trapped as a gas inside an ultra high vacuum chamber. The world’s first direct observation of a matter wave function equally capable of displaying interference phenomena like that observed of a photon or electron wave function was achieved with a dilute gas of alkali atoms. Intuitive or not, Matter, all Matter behaves both as a particle and as a wave.

While quantum mechanics provided some explanations to then classically unexplainable but observable physical phenomena, such as the photoelectric effect, which Einstein explained, it also created formidable philosophical challenges since it apparently violates what were considered basic ontological principles on which classical physics rested, most notably those with a deterministic character.

It is possible to rationalize away the lack of materialistic correspondence in the case of a photon wave packet due to the photon’s lack of mass, in the case of an atomic Bose-Einstein condensate – a macroscopic population of millions of atoms in a single quantum state – exhibiting the same behaviour, most concepts of the material world break down and reductionism’s materialistic perspective fails the observed reality. The wave nature of Matter is represented by a wave function, that is, by a mathematical representation of the particle’s probability of being at a certain location. In plain terms this means that the interference pattern represents a way to comprehend or visualize that there are locations in the dimensions that we call space with zero probability of finding the particle there, and other locations where there is a maximal probability. In either circumstantial extreme and in between, this interference ripple pattern corresponds to the absolute square of the wave function in that volume.

Through our perception we sense the physical and non-physical world’s information through a series of perceptive screens – senses, sensors, instruments, filters, prejudices, beliefs – and have build according to these perceptions based on an incomplete set of information an almost exclusively materialistic story of reality. We do not sense all information being broadcast – isotropically or anisiotropically – at us simultaneously. We – humans – do not have enough sensory processing capacity to register – perceive – it all simultaneously, at least not at this point in our organic evolution. This may be seen as pointer to the limitations of the sensory aspect to accommodate and account for all reality. Hayek (1945) formulated this idea as what is often referred as the bounded rationality that has inspired many economists towards the formulation of rational economic order theories and materialism.

Human endeavour has not limited itself to either reductionism or materialism theories regardless of how popular these may have been in the last few centuries within Western culture. In abstracting our observations through the limited sensory and processing apparatus of both our technologies and cognitive abilities, through out the millennia of human existence we have constructed and explored theories of varying complexity driven by a compulsion to make sense of it, create meaning, predict the future and control it. Clément (2003) conjectures that in getting a good picture of the causal nature of the world allows for a wide range of accurate predictions that can favour various volitional goals.

It was only recently in the early years of the twentieth century that it was observed experimentally that light behaved as tiny particles now called photons. Wave-particle duality was first discovered to be a feature of light in the early part of this century by Albert Einstein when he demonstrated that the photoelectric effect could be understood if one postulated that radiation itself consists of a beam of corpuscles (particles), the photons. It was for this work that Einstein was awarded the Physics Nobel Prize in 1921. Subsequently, experiments by Clinton Davisson and George Thomson, who shared the Physics Nobel Prize in 1937, demonstrated that electrons, traditionally regarded as particles, also behave as waves in experiments where an electron beam is diffracted from a crystal lattice. In fact, diffraction experiments lend support to the interpretation of the wave-particle duality of microscopic objects and that there exists a statistical bond between their wave nature and their particle aspect. It is of interest to note that the Physics Nobel Prize in 1906 was awarded to the J. J. Thomson for discovering the electron, and to de Broglie in 1929 for discovering that the electron behaves as a wave.

Entangled Paradoxes

Time and space may have stood still during the last century while quantum mechanics was being formulated however the human quest for knowledge has continued to advanced. Those unencumbered by the plight of not intuiting the dual nature of matter have gone on to gather further evidence that quantum mechanics itself is a functional theoretical representation for some aspects of our Universe.

As pointed out by Baez (2001) in a nontechnical introduction to recent work in quantum gravity using higher dimensional algebras, our present physical worldview is deeply schizophrenic. The two fundamental theories of the physical universe – general relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics based on quantum field theory – ignore on either side fundamental components of the other model. That is, while general relativity takes into account gravity recognizing that spacetime is curved and ignores quantum mechanics disregarding Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the Standard Model takes into account quantum mechanics, but ignores gravity and pretends that spacetime is flat.

Bojowald (2007) asked if the Universe before the big bang was of a classical nature well described by a smooth spacetime or if it was in a highly fluctuating quantum state. Based on loop quantum gravity – thus accounting for both spacetime curvature and quantum mechanics – Bojowald applied an exactly solvable mathematical model to analyse the evolution of a cosmological quantum system and illustrated some limitations to our understanding of nature. While it is taken for granted that a bounce (volume bounded away from zero during evolution) in cosmology allows an extrapolation of all physical quantities to times before the big bang, this expectation is not realized in a solvable model of minimum computational complexity and the memory of certain aspects of the universe before the big bang is lost while transiting through it. This mathematical treatment reveals that while the system – the Universe going through the big bang – is not chaotic, any trace of some of its initial conditions is lost in time as could be expected of a quantum system. This model also offers an interesting possibility to the nature of our Universe, and that is that is one whose evolution never stops, that is, being cyclic where some traces of each cycle are irretrievably lost shortly after the transiting from collapse to expansion.

In 1935 Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen published an argument with quantum mechanics’ prediction that certain states described as quantum entangled states by Schrödinger, could have a strong correlation between distant measurements. This argument is known as the EPR paradox and can be viewed as argumentation against quantum mechanics because the impossibility of predicting the measurement other than in probabilistic terms was in their view theoretical evidence that quantum theory was incomplete and it omitted to take into account certain aspects of reality. The nature of the quantum mechanics description is however statistical, and thanks to the insight of Bell (1964) who translated the EPR paradox into an experimentally accessible inequality that has subsequently been verifiably violated experimentally, quantum mechanics received more reality evidence as pointed out by Alain Aspect (1999). One can think of an entangled photon pair as predicted by quantum mechanics to be a non-separable object that can be sent in two different directions and then each photon measured at distances of several hundred meters (or kilometers) from each other and still exhibit the same quantum state as though in some sense, both photons keep in contact through spacetime during flight.

Put within this perspective, it is almost ironic that it would be Einstein himself who argued with quantum mechanics’ prediction of entangled quantum states and somehow forgot that for which he is so well known for, spacetime. Not that any of this is easy to intuit, but those with limber minds in the field of higher-dimensional algebras, topological quantum field theories, and loop quantum gravity may soon demonstrate that there is a representation in which entangled states are just another aspect of the geometry of nature.

Statistics, Language, Cognition and Truth

The narrative of the universal quantum adventure was given a suspenseful and unexpected turn by Max Born’s statistical interpretation of Schrödinger’s wave function thus advancing our understanding of the Universe, in particular the nature of Matter. This insight was a strong hint that the Universe’s Matter is not only discrete, but exhibits collective behaviour that can be represented by the language of statistical mechanics. Statistics is the abstract representational language for collections of discreet things. A collection of silicon atoms can be made to crystallize or solidify in some less orderly state described as amorphous, and in either case it will exhibit distinct cohesive behaviour that the isolated individual atom will not. Given the quantum scale of the atom, cohesive properties themselves can be understood through quantum mechanics, as is the case for the electronic properties in silicon. In a way one could say that silicon’s semiconductor behaviour is social behaviour.

Archaeologists and linguists have gathered evidence for the emergence and evolution of symbolic culture and language and these point towards it being an example of emergent phenomena as prescribed by the nature of complex adaptive systems. It is however only recently that statistical physicists have applied their tools towards the theoretical study of language. Statistical mechanics was used to arrive at the conclusion that human-like communication systems can be captured in a clean formal calculus and did provide evidence that language emerges as social behaviour within artificial systems as done by Steels (2006). The evidence that artificial systems can handle the symbol grounding problem needed to arrive at the emergence of a human-like communication system like language does take many who have argued vehemently against this possibility by surprise. Social behaviour is not the monopoly of what we call life, much less of humans.

Language and symbolism is however the vehicle of our narrative and meaning creation. Through the use of language we can carry forward and communicate many abstract concepts and propagate what we call beliefs. According to Clouser a religious belief is any belief in something or other as divine, and divine is anything not depending on anything else. We observe, often even with much emotion, that humans have a propensity to believe almost anything against all logical or rational thought. What is certain is that belief systems create sense, and that we all believe in something or other regardless of the status of its divinity. What exactly that sense is that gets created is an issue that philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologist alike like to theorize about. Based on Gopnik’s observation of child development and subsequent postulation of a cognitive drive that puts explanation’s relationship to cognition at the level of an orgasm’s relationship to reproduction, Clément (2003) goes on to look into belief. In Clément’s words and citing Ullmann (1989) most cases of religious conversions occur against a background of emotional turmoil and instability while the converts are far more looking for peace and stability than truth. That is, from an evolutionary point of view the cognitive process aims at creating a viable solution – making sense and searching for causality – for whatever the circumstance at that moment in human spacetime is.

From this cognitive drive point of view, truth is either irrelevant or of inconsequence. Truth has however a claim to the absolute, that is, to that that does not depend on anything else. However for the organism’s fitness and survival, the pragmatic and relative is what primes over the idealistic divine truth. In short, humans will believe in anything that will give it/them a sense of immediate peace. We thus advance the possibility that to believe is the human theoretical action model or metric that sustains life. Thus religious belief is a subset of a larger set of human beliefs.

What distinguishes belief from theory is that theory never pretends to be truth; theory models observation and experience in an attempt to create an understanding of reality. Belief on the other hand often lays a claim to truth and it creates a space that can be called the breeding ground of morals. In the food chain of evolution, belief is the precursor to theory. One can say that belief is the archaic precursor to theory analogous to Newtonian mechanics being the precursor to general relativity.

The Universe or the so-called Matter is interdependent and there is no element of it that does not depend on anything else. What is not immediately obvious is that the strength of the coupling of the interdependency could be determined by a topological relationship that has yet to be illuminated. This may however pose a problem to Clouser’s definition that the divine is that which does not depend on anything else.

Like identity, belief and theory are virtual abstract constructs of the mind that exist without physical embodiment. This is, whatever permits humans to construct theory is something that is ineffable, thus not necessarily amenable to representation. Our quest is thus one for a representational reality while trying to make sense of the non-representational. In a world of information, we acquire knowledge through cognition. Knowledge is the cognitively processed information. Like theories are part of our knowledge, so is belief and evidently also all the other screens that filter our perception. Within this line of argument, perception is then both the filtered and unfiltered information that we receive.

The bridge – morphism – between belief and quantum mechanics may reside in cognition if one is to define cognition as the functional relationship between information and knowledge. Let’s consider that information and knowledge are related by a transformation of which cognition is the operator or morphism. Information is what matter and energy – Matter – contain. In other words one could consider the nature of information to be universally pervasive or ubiquitous. This is tantamount to saying that the Universe is closed system of information. Any observable or potentially observable phenomenon is emergent out of this complex adaptive system, which with some good fortune higher-dimensional algebras gives us some abstract access to. Within this ontology is it perhaps not too surprising that language itself is an emergent phenomenon in a dynamic adaptive complex system exhibiting local manifestation or expression.

Emergence, Ubification and Enkapsis

Of all things that we do question, change may be the only reality around which there is a broad consensus, change happens. If we take the view that the Universe is an information complex adaptive system containing all the aesthetics and abstractions of its self-expression, then we may easily transit to Dooyeweerd’s view of nature. In a heuristic theory of change there is besides the general adaptive cycle, also hierarchies that are formed by nested sets of such cycles at progressively larger scales. If the demonstration of the emergence of language in both human and artificial social systems is too tenuous to be considered evidence for the universality and interdependence of our Universe, it is at least a good hint that this may be an interesting approach to explore.

Reductionism and materialism, even if presently under criticism have also revealed considerable amounts of valuable information that could be archived and processed, and should not be regarded as wrong, but could benefit from being placed within an appropriate context. That appropriate context in our view is that of these being theories that have advanced our knowledge of our surroundings and Universe. The fragmentation into various disciplines was not only necessary but also valuable in order to transit to the next level of exploration. At that next level of exploration we bring it together heuristically in what we would like to call the process of ubification.

In ubification – process and thus a dynamic – that function between the various spaces relevant to whereness (spacetime) those things which during the past couple of centuries disconnected from one another with minute scholarly diligence driven by our reductionist zeal propelled by our cognitive drive to make sense, are again interconnected and find themselves to be a part of the Universe again. Through Dooyerwerd’s mind, enkapsis is the relationship that couples the combination of nested structures that are combined to create different structures of individuality.

The need for a new understanding

Calls for a rethink of our existing reductionist, referred to by Durr (2005) as materialistic-mechanistic worldview, of classical physics are progressively gathering momentum. New ways of thinking about reality and the nature of reality and the atom itself are gaining acceptance particularly as a result of the intriguing insights into the nature of reality and the atom being brought about by quantum physics. Often reductionist accounts of physics are driven by a single perspective often shaped by a physical understanding of reality. Hence the perceived difficulty amongst physicists and philosophers about the nature of the atom being either physical or wave but not both. Clouser (1991) writes so eloquently about the conflict and contradictions often found in the theories developed by the great minds of our time into the nature of reality. Table 1 summarizes the differing views of the nature of the atom propagated by such theories:



Nature of reality


A system of fictitious entities


Hypothesis which correspond to un experienced physical objects


Physical properties but essentially mathematical in nature

Experimental work on the duality of the atom has given rise to incoherence’s, Sikkema (2005). The interaction between an entity and its observer determines which part of the duality manifests itself, i.e. when looking for wave features the atom looks like a wave and vice versa. The recognition of the reality of the wave nature of entities is a blow to the idea of composition being fundamental to understanding reality and the atom.

Such traditional reductionist frameworks of understanding reality are often engulfed in rigid structures that allow little room if any for any sort of flexibility which is so needed particularly when considering how to deal with the apparent paradox or dual nature of the atom. Furthermore, such approaches may even hinder progress into the field of enquiry itself. Sikkema (2005) argues that the more one knows about the wave nature of a specific entity, the less one knows about its particle nature, and vice versa. At the beginning of this century Lord Rutherford and the Danish physicist Niels Bohr designed a beguilingly simple model of the atom as a miniature solar system, in which negatively charged electrons circle like planets round a positively charged nucleus. But the model ran into one paradox after another: the electrons behaved quite unlike planets: they kept jumping from one orbit into a different orbit without passing through intervening space – as if the earth were suddenly transferred into the orbit of Mars without having to travel. The orbits themselves were not linear trajectories but wide, blurred tracks, and it was meaningless to ask for instance at what point of its orbit the electron of the hydrogen atom was at any given moment of time; it was equally everywhere. In fact Heisenberg himself wrote “The very attempt”, “to conjure up a picture “of elementary particles” and think of them in visual terms is wholly to misinterpret them”, Burt (1967). It seems Heisenberg implicitly suggests opposition to reductionism. Philosophically, the developments of quantum mechanics were far-reaching. Like relativity, they again showed that humans could not assume that the physical laws which seem to govern a 60-kg person moving at speeds up to several hundred kilometres per hour also applied to bodies far from this regime. They also brought into question the assumption of the perfectly deterministic world proposed by Laplace. Clearly it was impossible to predict the position and velocity of every body for all future times if you could not even know these coordinates accurately at a single instant in time. This conclusion has even been used as the basis of the claim that humans have free will, that all is not predetermined as would seem to be the case in a purely mechanistic, deterministic world governed by the laws of physics. These ideas are still heavily debated today, as in a recent article by Roger Penrose in the book Quantum Implications.

Answers or even clarifications of these issues seems to be moving more and more towards philosophical accounts rather than so called scientifically oriented methods. This becomes evident when considering the double slit experiment; our observation of what is going on at the slits causes an irreversible change in the behavior of the electrons. This is usually called the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.” The conclusion of all this is that there is no experiment that can tell us what the electrons are doing at the slits that does not also destroy the interference pattern. Limitations of experimental work in accounting for the very nature of reality is also discussed in Clouser (1991). This is the conclusion come to by Bohr, in establishing his “principle of complementarity”: the wave and particle descriptions of matter (or electromagnetic radiation) are complementary, in the sense that our experiments can test for one or the other, but never for both properties at the same time.

This paper attempts to give an intuitive account of the apparent paradoxical nature of the atom. It does so by freeing itself from the rigidity of the reductionist viewpoint of the nature of reality and working out an account of the nature of the atom based on a non reductionist philosophy advocated by Herman Dooyeweerd.

Towards a Dooyeweerdian interpretation of the atom

When discussing the nature of the atom there seems to be two sets of issues to contend with: These are:

  1. Nature of the atom itself
  2. Nature of the atom when interacting with a human observer

Bridging these two issues will contribute to clarifying the mystery and some of the paradoxical characteristics of the atom. To do this we will be driven by the following factors that are central to Dooyweerdian thinking and understanding:

  1. Understanding reality within a Multi Aspectual framework. Here we introduce Doyyewered’s Law framework which transcends everything else including humans, atoms, etc.
  2. Irreducibility, distinctiveness, and importance of the physical and wave aspects of the atom. The two aspects, namely the Physical and the Kinematic, which seem to characterise the atom are discussed.
  3. The tight coupling between the two aspects as a basis for understanding the duality of the nature of the atom. Here we bring in Dooyeweerd’s notion of Enkapsis and argue that the dual nature of the atom is yet another type of Enkapsis.
  4. Human functioning in this Multi Aspectual framework. Here we will introduce the special place of humans in this Multi Aspectual framework and how the various functioning modes within it enable us to make sense of the atom in a non controversial way.

The Framework of Law Theory: What are Aspects?

Dooyeweerd proposed that there are a number of distinct aspects of reality which are centered on types of meaning and on modes of being. Aspects are often called ‘spheres’ or ‘modalities’. Each aspect has a distinct set of laws that guide and enable functioning. Our functioning is enabled and given meaning by these aspects, and is multi-aspectual in nature.

Table 1: Dooyeweerd aspects and their kernel meaning (Dooyeweerd pages)


What it means


How much of things


Continuous extension


Motion or movement of things


Energy and matter


Life and vitality


Perception: Seeing and feeling




Formative power


Symbolic representation


Social interaction and institutions






What is due


Self-giving love, generosity


Faith, vision, commitment

As well as the issue of aspects Dooyeweerd’s philosophy has other issues that can be used to guide our understanding of the atom, we list them as follows:

• Irreducibility of Aspects. The aspects are fundamentally irreducible to each other. This means that no aspect can be derived from another, and that each aspect must be given proper ‘respect’ in a situation.

• Sphere Universality. That these aspects, though irreducible, are nevertheless closely intertwined, such that in each there are echoes of each of the other.

• Dependency among aspects. The aspects form a sequence, in which the laws of an aspect depend on those of earlier aspects for their proper functioning, even though they may not be reduced to them. For example, ‘good’ social functioning depends on ‘good’ lingual functioning, which itself depends on ‘good’ formative, then analytical, sensitive, biotic and physical functioning. It is the earlier aspects that have the more determinative laws while the later aspects have more normative laws.

• The notion of a qualifying aspect. That (almost) all human activities, and (almost) all entities are qualified by one aspect, even though the functioning involved in the activity is in fact multi-aspectual. It is the qualifying aspect that gives an activity or entity its primary meaning, and also provides the most useful criteria for evaluating whether the activity or entity is ‘good’ or ‘impaired’.

• The notion of enkapsis. This helps us understand the nature of entities with more precision. What we experience as an ‘entity’ is often, in fact, an enkaptic intertwinement of several distinct ‘entities’, each of which is qualified by a different aspect. Dooyeweerd’s terms for these two types of ‘entity’ are, respectively ‘enkaptic structural whole’ and ‘individuality structure’. Dooyeweerd’s example is the statue of Praxiteles, which is both a physically qualified block of marble and an aesthetically qualified object of art. Enkapsis speaks of what individuality structures are necessary to the proper understanding of an enkaptic structural whole, rather than what individuality structures could be part of it in various circumstances. For example, the statue of Praxiteles is also an historical and an economic artifact, but these are secondary individuality structures.

The above is a general account of the framework of Aspects and their distinct meanings. The question is in what ways the above account relates to working out an analysis of the nature of the atom. This is what we will discuss in the remaining sections.

Aspects and the atom

A pivotal tenant of Dooyweerdian thinking is that all things including the atom function in all aspects, see Table 2.

Table 2: Aspectual functioning of atoms


What it means

Atom’s functioning


How much of things

Number of atoms


Continuous extension

Atoms occupy space rather than void


Motion or movement of things

Atoms have energy and movement


Energy and matter

Atoms have mass


Life and vitality

Atoms form living tissue


Perception: Seeing and feeling

Effect of atoms can be perceived through experiments



Atoms are distinguishable from other particles


Formative power

Not known


Symbolic representation

Communicative acts are facilitated by atoms


Social interaction and institutions

Not known



Not known





What is due

Discoveries of atoms are protected by law


Self-giving love, generosity

Not known


Faith, vision, commitment

Not known


However, certain aspects play what can be considered a central role in defining the behaviour and nature of those things. In Dooyeweerdian terms such an aspect is known as the Qualifying aspect. It is the qualifying aspect that allows us to distinguish one type of entity from another. It is the aspect which best capture the “Atomeness” of the atom. Basden (The Dooyeweerd Pages, 2001) and Clouser (1991) discuss the notion of qualifying aspect at some length. Whilst we share Basden’s concerns that the notion of the qualifying aspect may tend to go down the route of reductionism especially when it is considered in relation to man made artifacts it nevertheless lends itself well to natural artifacts such as the atom. The body of the literature on the nature of the atom has consistently evolved around two aspects; namely the Physical (Particle) or Kinematic (Wave). The question is which of these aspects is the qualifying aspect of the atom? Dooyeweerd talks about the notion of “Individuality Structures” which we can adapt here to talk about the atom. Individuality Structures are to do with Dooyeweerd’s theory of entities which states that real-life “wholes” (or things) involve several distinct individuality structures. Citing Dooyeweerd’s own example of Praxiteles statue of Hermes (a whole) involves at least the following two individuality structures:

  • A block or marble
  • Work of art

Whilst the block of marble is physically qualified, the work of art on the other hand is aesthetically qualified. Both are necessary to the being of the statue. This type of analysis can be mapped to discussing the nature of the atom. We can argue, based on the consistency of what the scientific literature reports, that the atom has two individuality structures:

  • Mass
  • Energy

We can identify and distinguish the individuality structures through aspectual qualification. Mass is physically qualified and energy kinematcially qualified. Therefore, it is essential for discussing the nature of the atom to consider both aspects. This may not be a new insight for physicists themselves but it certainly is an enrichment of existing philosophical debate surrounding the nature of the atom. An alternate way of discussing the nature of the atom in a non reductionist way is to adopt Clouser’s (1991) notion of qualifying aspect and what he calls “Type Laws”. Clouser describes type laws as the laws that range across aspects regulating how properties of the various aspectual types can combine thus forming things of a particular type. In the case of the atom this refers to specific and distinct combinations of certain properties of both the physical and kinematic aspects combining together in some distinct ways to form an atom.

The physical and kinematic aspects are the highest, in terms of order on the list of aspects, in which the atom’s functioning is seen as “active”. This is a term used by Clouser (1991) to distinguish active and passive functioning. The atom’ active functioning in those two aspects means that the rest of reality will experience the atom in term of those properties of those aspects. The atom’s functioning in all the other aspects is known as “passive” functioning. This implies that the atom has a meaning in those aspects when they become part of the active functioning of other entities or beings. So, for example, the atom has passive functioning in the sensory aspect because it does not have senses or does perceive the world but precisely because of this passive functioning it becomes possible for humans who function actively in the sensory aspect to observe the atom experimentally.

The above analysis demonstrates the comprehensibility of underpinning discussion of the atom in Dooyweerdian thinking. The dual, often controversial, nature of the atom can now be seen against the richness of the Law framework such that both the physical and the kinematic aspects are essential for the meaning of the atom. This type of analysis sits comfortably with a Dooyweerdian non reductionist philosophy in contrast with the intense rivalry and contradictions that characterise reductionist approaches.

Clouser’s type laws leads us into our next element of accounting for the nature of the atom and that is the nature of the combination or mapping between the physical and kinematic aspects.

Inseparability of the two aspects: Enkapsis

To simply talk about the atom only in terms of the two aspects of the physical and the kinematic without the stating how properties of the two aspects combine or map onto each other would not form a sound basis for discussing the meaning of the atom. This is evident not only through experimental work but also because it would be very difficult to find something in reality that is of purely one single aspect.

We see the meaning of the atom comes from both aspects simultaneously and not one or the other separately. However, this does not prohibit us from discussing certain properties of the atom that pertain to one of its essential aspects. This happens when physicists conduct experiments to learn about the atom. Such experiments show that the interaction between the atom and its observer is such that its wave nature manifests itself when wave-like questions are asked, and its particle nature manifests itself when particle-like questions are asked. Sikkema (2005) discusses the dual nature of the atom and points out that the more one knows about the wave nature of a specific entity, the less one knows about its particle nature, and vice versa; hence, the “complementarity” of the wave-particle duality. According to our suggested approach, i.e. the two aspectual nature of the atom, this peculiar observation should no longer be seen as a mystery or a paradox. So, what is the nature of the combination between the two aspects ? Dooyeweerd makes use of the term Enkapsis to describe such relationships. Dooyewwerd argues that we experience entities as an enkaptic intertwinement of several distinct ‘entities’, each of which is qualified by a different aspect.

‘enkapsis takes place, when one structure of
individuality [i.e. an entity] restrictively binds a
second structure … without destroying the
peculiar character of the latter.’

Enkapsis speaks of what individuality structures are necessary to the proper understanding of an enkaptic structural whole, rather than what individuality structures could be part of it in various circumstances. Basden (1999) mentions five other different types of Enkapsis cited in Dooyeweerd (1955). These are listed in the table below:

Table 3: Types of Enkapsis (Dooyeweerd pages)

Type of enkapsis

Its meaning


as that exhibited by the sculpture (work of art, marble it is made of)


as between a snail and its shell


as between clover and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and also between a cow and its meadow


as between an animal and its environment


as between a state and its orchestras (direct version) or between a tax-payer and the schools (indirect version)

However, there is a peculiarity about the nature of the relationship or enkapsis between the two aspects we have suggested (physical and dynamic) that comprise the atom. We need to explain why the two aspects of the atom are not immediately available to an observer as with objects of experience at the macro level such as our Praxiteles statue discussed above. An observer of Praxiteles could “appreciate” both aspects of immediately and simultaneously. This unique feature of the micro-world of atoms points to at least three things. One is that we are dealing with a new type of enkapsis which we know little about and one which requires the active collaborations of philosophy and physics. Two, macro level entities, such as our statute of Praxiteles, their being is quite distinct and separate from other statutes and even other beings. This is not true of the atom. The atom as a basic building block of reality transcends all entities. As such attempts to account for the “whole” nature of the atom are really an interference with the fabric of all other entities and things. Now, we are not saying that experiments with atoms are useless but what we are saying is that whilst we may get some data about certain aspects of the atom through calculations we may never really be able to account for its whole meaning. Three, we have to be open minded about our philosophical dispositions and accept their limitations whenever the tare encountered. The duality of the atom and for that matter all other phenomenon at the sub atomic level could well point to limitations of Dooyweerdian thinking to provide intuitive explanations at this level. At this micro level entities may not be observable or perceptible with the same distinctiveness and intuitiveness as we find with macro level entities. Whilst this thesis may not be agreed by all but at least it points to the need for a more work and a better understanding of the notion of Aspects at the sub atomic level.


How are we to understand quantum humanism through the integrative philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd?

The topic of this paper is to underpin the dual nature of the atom in a non reductionist philosophical framework. However, more importantly, its underlying message is an invitation to those who seek truth and wish to understand reality to recognise and appreciate a richer reality than what they previously thought. If we view reality in its totality, material, spiritual or any other set of dimensions, then it is expected that for humans who are given the privilege or rather the burden of understanding it to need more than one system of knowledge or knowing. We have, based on scientific evidence, taken the view that the atom is an enkapsis of two such ways of knowing, known as Aspects. The paper is probably one of few attempts at taking Dooyeweerdian thinking out of its accustomed environment of social science into understanding the world of modern physics. As anticipated the paper revealed the need for more work in this area.

A first interaction with what seems to be the welding of two ends of a long strip of theories representing the evolution of human thought where on one end the ideas encapsulated within the formalism of higher-dimension algebra, topological quantum field theories and loop quantum mechanics that incorporate both the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and general relativity reside, and on the other end a narrative non reductionist philosophy of Modal Aspects stands awaiting critique, is a risky proposition as these two ends seem at first glance to have no common language in spite of their common goal. Both aim at making sense of our Universe.


The Dooyeweerd Pages http://www.dooy.salford.ac.uk/

Aspect Alain (1999) “Bell’s Inequality test: more ideal than ever” in Nature 398, 189-190.

Baez John C ( 2001) “Higher-Dimensional Algebra and Planck-Scale Physics” in Physics Meets Philosophy at the Planck Scale, eds. Craig Callender and Nick Huggett, Cambridge University Press, pp 172-195.
Basden A, (1999), “On the ontological status of virtual environments”, Paper for Dooyeweerdian Summer Course, Maarssen, Netherlands, Free University of Amsterdam.

Bell John “On The Einstein Podolsky Rosen Paradox” in Physics 1, 195.

Bojowald Martin (2007), “What happened before the big bang?” Nature Physics 3, 523 – 525, doi: 10.1038/nphys654.

Bronchelli Andrea, Felici Madalena, Loreto Vittorio, Caglioti Emanuele and Steels Luc (2006) “Sharp transition towards shared vocabularies in multi-agent systems” in J. Stat. Mech. P06014.

Clément Fabrice (2003) “The Pleasure of Believing. Toward a naturalist explanation of religious conversions” in Journal of Cognition and Culture, 3 (1), pp. 69-89.

Dooyeweerd H. (1955), A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. I-IV, Paideia Press (1975 edition), Ontario. Now published (1997) by Mellen Press.

Durr Hans-Peter (2005) We have to learn to think in a new way: Potsdam Denkschrift, ISBN-Nr.: 3-86581-012-8.

Einstein A, Rosen N and Podolsky B (1935) “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physcical Reality Be Considered Complete? “ in Phys. Rev. 47, 777-780.

Gopnik Alison (1999) “Explanations as orgasms” in Minds and Machines 8: 101-118.

Hayek Freidrich (1945) “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in American Economic Review, 4, September 1945, 99 519-30.

Ketterle Wolfgang (2006) “Bose-Einstein Condensation: Identity Crisis for Indistinguishable Particles” in Quantum Mechanics at the Crossroads, eds. James Evans and Alan S. Thorndike, Springer, Berlin , 2006, pp. 159-183 (2006)

Loretto Vittorio and Steels Luc (2007) “Emergence of Language” in Nature Physics 3, November 2007.

Steels Luc (2006) “Semiotic dynamics of embodied agents” IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(3):32-38 May/June 2006.

Ullmann Chana (1989) The Transformed Self: The Psychology of Religious Conversion, Springer, ISBN: 0306431343.

While physicist pursue the search for the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) and the expedition to find the Higgs that ought to solidify the Standard Model, philosophers keep inquiring as to what the nature of matter and mind might be and propose various theories. At first sight, the high energy physicist or the philosopher, both human, and the elementary particle seem to have nothing in common, however we contend and argue in this paper that we are looking at different scales of what constitutes universal behaviour and use Herman Dooyeweerd’s theory of Modal Aspects to bridge the particle to the mind. To other than a physicist the dual nature of the atom or the so-called elementary particles may be difficult to comprehend and certainly appears unfathomable to intuit. This is due to the fact that the dual nature of matter finds its anchoring within the theoretical and mathematical frameworks provided by quantum mechanics, the latter tends to not be easily accessible to most individual’s intuition. What would the consequences be if human nature itself had a dual character? We all know that human nature is both egoistic and altruistic, however it is not often that one considers the fact that egoism is an individual behaviour, while altruism is a collective behaviour. Likewise a particle is an individual manifestation of what we call matter, while wave nature can be considered characteristic of collective behaviour of the same matter.

Recent advances in experimental physics—the queen of reductionist science—aimed at solving the mysteries of the quantum world has led to a deepening of the mystery rather than easing it, dispelling the EPR paradox and pointing out a conceptional error in this now famous gedanken experiment, while lending some authority and validation to quantum mechanics. The strange features of the quantum world are founded on what Bohr dubbed complementarity, or the way a sub-particle entity can behave either as a wave or as a particle; and on Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that a quantum entity such as an electron does not avail itself to a deterministic exact measurement of both position and momentum simultaneously. Such postulates seem to contradict deeply held assumptions by the deterministic and materialistically oriented world of experimental physics where everything, including the atom, can be reduced to a single aspect. There are mounting calls for newer ways of understanding reality that are capable of handling these apparently strange incomprehensible phenomena revealed through the classical observation of the microscopic quantum world. There is also fundamental progress made in bouncing cosmology theories that bridge general relativity to quantum mechanics and provide some insight into the nature of the universe and its transition and pre-history through the big bang.

The thrust of this paper evolves around two pillars. One, is that that the apparent logical fissure emergent in reductionist thought, coming from orthodox science and the application of the scientific method that is manifest in what we know and do not understand in quantum mechanics, can be liaised to our intellectual understanding through the perspective offered by Herman Dooyeweerd’s theory of Modal Aspects. The other, is the central and special role humans have in relation to the universe. Through this approach, we will argue that the dual nature of the atom or elementary particles is, rather than being a strange phenomenon, in fact an essential characteristic of what constitutes its nature.

5/22/2008 05/22/2008 10462 Ethical and Aesthetical Identity—An Approach to Paul Ricoeur’s Thought

Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of identity aims to surpass two opposing perspectives that cross the last centuries of western thought. On the one hand, the cartesian subjectivity and its private conception of identity, independent of all social conditions and only knowable by introspection; on the other hand, Nietzsche’s view that, according to Ricoeur, undermines and humiliates the subject, conceiving it as a mere linguistic or a rhetorical tool, only as a figure of speech. We know how Descartes’ cogito will inspire future philosophers, like Kant and Husserl; but we also know that Nietzsche’s anti-cogito encouraged recent philosophers, like Jacques Derrida.

Is Ricoeur’s philosophy of subjectivity a successful overcoming of these two diametrical opposing perspectives that cross the last centuries of Western thought? Should we considerer it original, and in its innovation, able to solve the conflict of interpretations on subjectivity? These are the main questions that I’ll try to give an answer.

In my opinion, Ricoeur’s view of personal identity results from the permanent dialectic between Ipse (constancy, Ipseité) and Idem (sameness, mêmeté), that is, between subject’s power to relate continuously to itself during all his life and subject’s psychological and physical traits. If, for instance, identity and Ipse were the same thing, certainly we’d agree that Ricoeur’s philosophy is different from Descartes’ cogito, because ipseity implies temporality. Accordingly, it’s not a substance, an arquê that stands against everything else that is changeable and temporal; but it’d be difficult to separate it from the kantian ‘I think’, the transcendental subject that accompanies all my representations2

What can then be said about this situation when a subject confronts its proper nothing? Ricoeur answers that the assertion “I am not nothing” shows a subject deprived of the self-sameness security and stability, someone who isn’t able to identify himself with his traits and his own history; someone who recognizes himself as a nothing. But subject’s self-idem loss does not really mean that he is not ‘a nothing’. When he says “I am nothing», he still remains a time-existing subject, a subject able to tell something about himself, even when if it is simply the recognition of his proper nothing. Subjectivity doesn’t disappear, since the subject is still able to pose the question and answer it, even though his answer can only be the recognition of his own emptiness. When the subject lives these dramatic moments, he also deals with the dissolution of his descriptive marks, but at the same time still keeps the power to question himself and to provide answers. The reply can be empty, but always implies somebody that gives it.4 It is, in this way, that we become “writers and readers of our proper life”, reclaiming a Marcel Proust’s sentence in Le Temps Retrouvé.

In this way, when Ricoeur says that identity can only be established in a narrative way (which shouldn’t be understood as a simple addition of all plots built by us and told about us), he is rejecting the traditional approach to the personal identity problem – Idem – because this would mean thinking about it like a property, an ownership (steady, lasting) of a form of being. We know how the philosopher objects to this way of thinking. Behind self-idem, there is always a subjectivity that precedes all possible plots and it is their condition of possibility – a self-Ipse.

We can still ask: why subject’s plots about his proper life aren’t pure fiction, without relation to reality? Because plots are especially founded on the subject’s actions, and these, as we know, aren’t private, are public, in the sense that they are observed by others and open to their hermeneutics and narration. In this way, we can only understand who we really are, if we’ll be able to explain our actions and compare them inter subjectively. Like narratives told about others, also the narratives that we create about us are open to other people’s hermeneutics and correction. It’s this inter-subjective dialectic that can help us to distinguish between a true recognition of ourselves and an arbitrary and failed narrative. The Other shouldn’t be understood as excluded from identity, but as a vital part of it. According to his words: «the self implies the other in a so close way that one cannot be thought without the other.»6 we should recognize its importance for social well-being, the basic laws of sociability and mutual respect. On the other hand, we cannot forget the importance of morals to the subjectivity’s constitution. Who we are deeply depends on social customs and habits. It’s from social morality that we get our deeper beliefs on good, happiness, the value of our existence. Who we are is defined, in part, by our social morality.

It urges, then, to ask, are ethics and morals opposite? Let us remember what Ricoeur says: “It is, therefore, by convention, that I will keep the ethical term for the end of a fulfilled life, and morals term for the joint of this end with norms, distinguished at the same time for the pretension to universality and an effect of coercion […]”8

We see, thus, that a good life doesn’t refers to biological existence, but to the “unity of the complete man”, the man’s ability to launch a retrospective look on itself and to appear unified, accordingly with his life’s project. It is, in this context, that we should understand the Socratic precept, according to which, only an examined life deserves to be lived by a man. When the philosopher pronounces these words it is clearly to support, on one hand, that neither all lives have the same value or deserved to be lived and, on the other hand, only thought turns life into a good one. A life without reflection is a life where man gives up his condition, where he renounces to what best defines his own nature. In a similar way, Ricoeur also points out the importance of a reflexive and hermeneutical disposition during life, considering that only this basic exercise allows the accomplishment of a good life; only through thinking we can continually evaluate our existential project (ultimate good) and its connections to our particular actions (relative goods). Thus, the subject’s life is a text that, in order to be understood, is important a permanent reflection about its parts and its connection with the whole, like a hermeneutic circle. Therefore, to explain the ‘text of action ‘ is the same as to explain ourselves, in other words, the ethical subject can’t be disconnected from the narrative one. Now, we notice how Ricoeur’s conception of identity is enriched: in the ethical level, the hermeneutical self becomes ‘self-esteem’, an expression created by the philosopher to assign the personal experience of acting, causing changes in the world and, in this way, to accept (esteem) them as his, as part of his life’s project.

However, it’s this idea of a “true life”, proposed by Socrates, Aristotle and recovered by Ricoeur that allows the connexion between ethics and morals. As the philosopher shows, a good life always implies: 1) a personal satisfaction (ethical level) – because the subject is always the last judge (of the dignity and happiness degree) of his life; 2) moral merit – a life is good if it fits in the society’s moral standards, in those universal and objective models that evaluate the actions of each one, as well as the entire life, independently of the personal happiness. In short, a good life implies an individual’s (delicate) balance between living a rewarding (happy) life and fitting in a certain moral tradition. Ricoeur’s ethics is inseparable from morals: the “true life” results from the accomplishment of an ethical (subjective) existence in community.

But it will be with the concept of responsibility that Ricoeur fully justifies the ethical nature of identity. In fact, the word responsibility etymologically means the direction of an answer to give. But this reply appears, since soon, with a double sense: ‘to answer for’ and ‘to answer to’. Now, in my opinion, this double structure of responsibility will provide the true sense of identity; in other words, only the responsibility’s path makes us unique and irreplaceable. One meaning of responsibility – to answer for – points the relation of man with himself. In fact, to answer for is to answer not only for my acts and their effects, but especially for who I am. And when I already am nothing, I am still responsible for what I commit myself to do, because the binding to the given word is what remains in a subject totally deprived of sameness (Idem). By responsibility, I maintain myself as irreplaceable and, therefore, nobody can answer for me. Only I can do it (otherwise who will do it?), which leaves me with one of two choices: or I accept this responsibility or I resign the possibility to not only answer for my acts and effects, but overall for my life’s project. Being a subject is to be responsible, is to take upon oneself his existence and to answer for it, it is not to delegate this presence, this possibility of truly living in nobody.

Ricoeur understands identiy as a project developed with reference to the other, and if responsibility appears now as its condition of possibility, then this concept should be object of a new thinking. We just can’t identify with the traditional view of responsibility, because its reference is only the past. It is certain that we answer, we are equally responsible for what we did as for what we failed to do or even refused to do. But this retrospective view of responsibility isn’t enough if we want to link it with the conception of identity that we’ve came to sustain. If responsibility is, according to Ricoeur, the identity’s source, then we should take into account the man’s relation with his future.

What does it mean to be responsible then? It means to accept to be considered, in the present, as the same subject that acted in the past and that will act in the future. And it is this new conception of responsibility (which links the past, the present and the future) that defines identity. In fact, the stability of the self is only possible if the subject, being responsible, overall for itself, for his existence, is either able to accept, in the present, as much the past before which he feels indebted, as for the future he promises to carry through and to construct.10 The notion ‘to answer to’ shows law’s current trend in widening responsibility’s domain. Nowadays, responsibility is not limited to the relation between individuals and their effects in the world, but it also includes the relation between agent and patient, someone who causes effects and someone who suffers it. We live at a time when, according to Ricoeur, the victim is the nucleus of law’s responsibility, attending a displacement of the accent previously placed on the agent for the victim, the person who suffers the actual damage. This means that Man doesn’t already answer for itself and its acts, but also for the other. However, it is the fragility and vulnerability of the other that leads to a responsibility’s widening and renders him the source of morality.12 In Antigone the conflict is tragic, since inseparable from this theology, a deity that is, at the same time, too close and too far from man.14

Creon’s last words recognize that it was the same divine inspiration that moved him away from justice’s path, Creon’s hybris is directed by a divine voice that voluntarily leads him to wrong actions, delays his understanding of good and just and throws him in tragic action.16 Greek theology is tragic: deity’s action ends when men more need its aid. It leads subjects to a direct conflict, and because they are unable to solve it, tragic end could only be prevented with the deity’s aid. This help never comes: Antigone walks alone and helpless to death.18 Sophocles religious imaginary reflects the doubts that humanity will deal forever: god’s belief doesn’t imply that man feels, sometimes in life, especially in difficult moments, an agony, solitude and a theological helplessness. As Ricoeur argues, in these moments, man feels a “frustration theological” that, instead of becoming atheism, becomes a tragic faith with Greeks, a faith that keeps believing and invoking this demonic transcendence.20

Original and conciliator, thus we classify Ricoeur’s philosophy on identity. Original, because instead of accepting subject’s traditional boarding (searching an identification criterion of public recognition, whether mental or physical), the philosopher displaces the reflexion to subject’s inwardness and considers, in my opinion, ethics and aesthetics as two possible levels that, in its interconnection, offer answers (always temporary) to the question Who am I? Conciliator, because the dialectics between Ipse and Idem, self and character, already doesn’t allows us to think subjectivity as static and unchangeable, but dynamic, temporal and opened to otherness. On the other hand, although its eminently fragile and finite nature, at no moment the waste of character, leads to selfhood dissolution, what also weakens philosophies of anti-cogito. Placed between two traditional conflicting views, Ricoeur’s philosophy of subjectivity should be understood as an intermediary and mediating position between both.



Ricoeur’s Works

«Auto-compréension et Histoire», in AAVV, Paul Ricoeur. Los caminos de la Interpretación, Barcelona, Antropos, 1991

Le Juste, Paris, Éditions Esprit, 1995

Lectures 3 – Aux frontières de la philosophie, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1992

Philosophie de la volonté. Finitude et Culpabilité II.La Symbolique du Mal, Paris, Éditions Montaigne, 1960

Soi-même comme un autre, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1990

Secondary Sources

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, Trans. Manuela Pinto dos Santos and Alexandre Fradique Morujão, Lisbon: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1989

Moore, Barrington, Privacy – Studies in Social and Cultural History, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1984

Sophocles, Antigone, Trans. Maria Helena da Rocha Pereira, Lisbon, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2000


2 «En ces moments de dépouillement extrême, la réponse nulle à la question Qui suis-je? Renvoie, non point à la nullité, mais à la nudité de la question elle-même.
Paul Ricoeur, Soi-même comme un autre, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1990, 197

4 Paul Ricoeur, «Auto-compréension et Histoire», in AAVV, Paul Ricoeur. Los caminos de la Interpretación, Barcelona, Antropos, 1991, 25

6 Paul Ricoeur, Soi-même comme un autre, 200

8 Paul Ricoeur, Op. Cit., 203

10 Paul Ricoeur, Op. Cit., 195

12 Paul Ricoeur, Lectures 3 – Aux Frontières de la philosophie,Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1992,188

14 Barrington Moore, Privacy – Studies in Social and Cultural History, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1984, 120-121

16 Paul Ricoeur, Op. Cit.,202, 207

18 Sophocles, Op. Cit., 1265-1340

20 Paul Ricoeur, Soi-même comme un autre, 11-14

In this article, I analyse Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as another and try to answer these questions: Is Ricoeur’s philosophy of identity a successful overcoming of the two opposing perspectives that cross the last centuries of Western thought? Should we considerer it original and able to solve the conflict of interpretations on identity?

I also try to refute the reader’s common argument, according to which, personal identity and selfhood can be identified in Ricoeur’s thought. I sustain that: 1) identity results from a permanent dialectic between character (sameness, Idem) and selfhood (constancy, Ipse), that is, between subject’s power to relate continuously to himself during his life and subject’s psychological and physical traits; 2) ethics and aesthetics are the two domains where, in connection, personal identity can be built. Following Aristotle to Ricoeur, the ethical man is the one who continuously questions his way of living, the ultimate goods of his life. But the individual life’s project can only be fully understood in an aesthetical way. The Identity’s construction requires imagination and is supported by an artistic form—the narrative—with the last purpose of self-understanding and bringing up new worlds.

Thus it’s impossible to understand Ricoeur’s proposal if we don’t link ethics and arts (in the narrative way). Each man’s life should be understood as a work of art (aesthetical), which is being made from a constant re-evaluation of ultimate goods that configure his own existence, his actions and the person that he is (ethical). This self-reflection will be able to strengthen subject’s personal beliefs (ethical – idem) or to resist and maybe refuse values and principles previously accepted without examination. In this last case, nothing remains in the subject unless somebody who wishes to identify with a new character (self – idem). But in both situations, the subject should be considered as a self-creator (aesthetic ipse), because imagination is always required to create personal and social views of good life. The end of this work of art matches with the end of individual’s life.

Besides that, the creation of a personal and unique kind of life always requires, paradoxically, the Other’s mediation. This idea seems to be another distinguishing mark of Ricoeur’s philosophy: our identity is built from a space inhabited for a diversity of practical reasons, of hermeneutics in conflict; in this way, we are co-authors of our lives and not simply authors; identity is formed and uncovered not for introspection, but for a set of narratives that are told about us and by us.

Although I agree with Ricoeur about the importance of an ethical intersubjectivity, I don’t support his Sophocles’s Antigone hermeneutics in Oneself as another. I argue that the tragic conflict between Antigone and Creon isn’t only ethical, but religious. Only Greek Theology—the belief in a ‘cruel’ God—gives us the ‘tools’ to understand Sophocles’s tragedy. To sustain my thesis, I appeal to other works of Ricoeur and try to show that his philosophy is rich enough to be fair to Sophocles’ complex imaginary.

5/22/2008 05/22/2008 10463 The Human Soul: A Catholic Theological Response to Non-Reductive Physicalism


In the book, Whatever Happened to the Soul, the authors argue in support of a view they call non-reductive physicalism. According to this view, Nancey Murphy says the human person “is a physical organism whose complex functioning, both in society and in relation to God, gives rise to ‘higher’ human capacities such as morality and spirituality.”2 In this paper, as a believing Christian and a Catholic theologian, I offer some responses to non-reductive physicalism. In brief, while I agree with a number of points made by authors supporting non-reductive physicalism, I disagree with their denying that we human beings have immaterial immortal souls.

Christian authors who support non-reductive physicalism generally support a number of tenets of traditional Christian faith such as that God loves us, that human beings are created in the image of God and have free will, and resurrection of the dead. They, however, disagree with the traditional Christian view that we human beings have immaterial immortal souls. This “traditional” view of the human soul has been articulated and defended, for example, by many mainstream patristic and scholastic authors, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, and more recent authors such as neuroscientists John Eccles and Mario Beauregard, philosophers Karl Popper and Karol Wojtyla (who became Pope John Paul II), and theologians Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Benedict Ashley and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).4 They also consider this view to be in accord with empirical scientific data including the findings of neuroscience which demonstrate a tightening of mind-brain-behavior links.6

In my view the traditional Christian view of the human soul can better account for all of the related data from the Bible and human experience than can non-reductive physicalism. Discussion of this will be arranged in three main parts in this paper: 1) Some Related Biblical Data; 2) Some Related Christian Traditions; and 3) Some Related Data of Human Experience.

1.) Some Related Biblical Data

There are a number of biblical texts, according to some good biblical scholars and theologians, which support the view that the human soul continues to exist in an intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection. This implies that the human soul transcends the physical body, that it is incorporeal or immaterial or spiritual. Without being exhaustive, we will consider here some of the most relevant biblical texts, as well as some related commentary by a number of biblical scholars.8]. The ghost of Samuel then enters into a conversation with King Saul. A related scholarly note in The New Jerusalem Bible says that, “The narrator seems to share the popular belief in ghosts (though he regards it unlawful to consult them)…. The incident is presented as a genuine recalling of Samuel’s spirit…” According to biblical scholar Antony Campbell, the time of composition of 1-2 Samuel “covers the centuries from the beginnings of the monarchy in Israel to the exile and the postexilic period.” He himself argues that “a late 9th-cent. Prophetic document” lies behind the present text.10

Jewish Apocryphal Literature / Deuterocanonical Books

Between the time that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were written, there were some Jewish writings that are often referred to as intertestamental or Jewish apocryphal literature. Within this literature one sees some developments as well as diversity of views with regard to the afterlife. For example, some of these writings express the view that within Sheol there is a place of punishment for the wicked called “Gehenna,” whereas the righteous are taken to “Paradise.” One group within Judaism, the Sadducees, did not believe in bodily resurrection, whereas another group, the Pharisees, did.12 One of these books, 2 Maccabees 15:11-16, reports Judas Maccabeus’s vision of two deceased just men, the high priest Onias and the prophet Jeremiah interceding with God for the Jewish people and the Holy City. Biblical scholar Neil McEleney says that these two just men represent the law (embodied in the priesthood) and the prophets. “The vision … illustrates the author’s belief in the intercessory power of the saints.” 2 Maccabees 12:44-5 approves of praying for those who have died. Concerning this McEleney says that the author “sees Judas’s action as evidence that those who die piously can be delivered from unexpiated sins… This doctrine, thus vaguely formulated, contains the essence of what would become (with further precisions) the Christian theologian’s teaching on purgatory.”14

The Christian New Testament

Concerning everlasting life, the main focus in the New Testament is on bodily resurrection in the light of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Nevertheless, a number of texts present Jesus, his disciples and the respective New Testament authors as also believing in an intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection. Let us begin by considering the Gospel according to Luke 23:43 which reports Jesus on the cross saying to the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” With regard to “today in Paradise,” biblical scholar Caroll Stuhlmueller says, “Jesus’ reply, his last words to any person on earth, puts the emphasis upon ‘today’—before the sun sets.” Concerning “With me,” He tells the thief that he will not be simply in Jesus’ retinue (syn emoi) but will also be sharing his royalty (meth’ emou).” She says, “paradise” is“A word derived from Old Persian … used … in the NT for the abode of the righteous (Ap 2:7; 2 Cor 12:2-4).” Catholic theologian Benedict Ashley, referring to a biblical commentary by G. B. Caird, says, “By the time of the Pharisees, the rabbis taught that at death there is judgment and the shades of the unrighteous go to a place of punishment in Sheol called Gehenna, and the just to a place of happiness called Paradise, like the garden of Eden. It is evidently to this that Jesus refers on the Cross .… to the good thief…”16

Luke 16:19-31 reports Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. When they die, the poor man goes to the “bosom of Abraham” but the rich man goes to Hades. They are forever separated. With regard to this parable, Stuhlmueller says that the image of “Abraham’s bosom … is expressive of either the eschatological banquet (5:34) or of an intimate fellowship with Abraham (both known in rabbinical literature… in Hades [refers to]Hell, Sheol, abode of the dead. Enoch [a pre-Christian Jewish apocryphal book] ch. 22 speaks of adjoining quarters for the evil and the good in this abode of the dead and seems to imply that they remain there till the judgment and general resurrection. This notion corresponds to the rabbinical teaching…”18 These parallel texts respectively say that when he was put to death Christ went “in the spirit” and “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison…”(1 Pet 3:18-20) and “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”(1 Pet 4:6; cf. Jn 5:25). With regard to these and some other related New Testament passages, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was composed by a number of outstanding theologians and promulgated by Pope John Paul II, says in part:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there… Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell”—Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer; which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.”(Roman Catechism I, 6, 3) Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him…. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.20

In 2 Cor 12:2-4, the Apostle Paul speaks of a man who fourteen years before had a vision, in which he was not sure whether he was in or outside his body, who was caught up to the third heaven, into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words. In humility Paul speaks of himself here in the third person.22

A number of the above biblical passages present human beings as being conscious and able to communicate after their death. And yet, according to the New Testament view the general resurrection of the dead had not yet taken place. With regard to this 2 Tim 2:17-18 reads: “…Hymenaeus and Philetus … have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place.” Anglican bishop and biblical scholar Tom Wright says, “In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet.” John Cooper, who analyzes various New Testament texts related to the time of the resurrection, concludes that although there are some variations in language, New Testament authors believed the general resurrection of the dead was in the historical future. For the Apostle Paul this will occur with the parousia, the Second Coming of Christ.24 The Bible also presents God as “Spirit” (see John 4:24), as invisible and transcending the visible created universe (see Rom 1:16-25). The biblical data concerning angels and God supports the view that there is more to reality than what is physical. Such a view is compatible with the traditional Christian view, which we will consider further below, that the human person is a profound union of an invisible spiritual soul and a visible physical body. With regard to the question of consciousness which we will also consider further below, we can note here that God and angels are presented in the Bible as personal conscious beings without bodies including brains. Although the second person of the Trinity took on a human body with the incarnation, God the Father and Holy Spirit did not. God the Son or Word was also conscious before the incarnation. Therefore, consciousness does not necessarily require having a physical body and a brain.

With regard to the early Christians and Jesus believing in spirits or ghosts see, for example, Luke 24:36-43, which reports the Risen Jesus appearing to the disciples and speaking to them. The passage reads in part: “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’”(verses 37-39) Concerning this passage, biblical scholar Léopold Sabourin says in part that the Greek pneuma in verses 27 and 39 must mean a “ghost,” “the appearance of someone who has died…. To understand Lk 24:39 correctly it is necessary to presuppose that the disciples recognized Jesus but believed they were only seeing his ‘spirit’ and not his true resurrected humanity.” Commenting on this same passage in a biblical commentary, Michael Patella says in part, “Maintaining that the resurrected Jesus is a ghost is more comprehensible to the disciples than believing that he is risen. With this Jerusalem appearance, paralleled in John 19:19-29, Luke presents an apology for those who deny the reality of the resurrection…. This passage introduces the nature of the glorified body, a reality that goes to the heart of Christian belief. The resurrected life that Christ initiates goes beyond spiritual existence in eternity. It is a new life involving the glorified body…”26 With regard to such texts, as well as other biblical texts which we have considered above which support the view of human souls continuing to exist in an intermediate conscious state between bodily death and resurrection, it seems to me that we should appreciate a development of theology and teaching within the Bible itself concerning the afterlife. We certainly find this with regard to belief in bodily resurrection, which is not presented in earlier parts of the Bible, that is, in much of the Jewish scriptures, but is clearly affirmed in the New Testament. In a somewhat similar way we see signs within the Bible, which was composed over many centuries, of a developing understanding of Sheol, the abode of the dead, and the intermediate state. Within the Bible we see a number of other such developments in understanding and theology, for example, related to the law, God’s salvation, and the one God being a Trinity of three divine persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It seems to me that any good theory of biblical interpretation needs to take seriously not just some biblical texts which seem to support one’s position, but all related biblical texts. Related to developments of understanding and theology within the Bible, the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church speaks of God’s pedagogy and progressive revelation. God’s revelation was completed in Jesus Christ.28 These beliefs should not be surprising to us since they are in line with biblical teaching as we considered above.

Thomas Aquinas

With regard to Christian theological views during the Middle Ages, due to the limits of this paper, we will only consider here some of the related views of Thomas Aquinas (13 Cent. A.D.). His “Thomistic” philosophy and theology have had an enormous and lasting influence. Aquinas, with a good knowledge of the Bible, the Fathers of the Churchand philosophy, adapted Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory, the soul as the form or animating principle of the body, to Catholic faith (cf. Catholic Teaching, the Fourth Lateran Council, below). Like Aristotle he spoke not only of human souls but also of plant and animal principles of life or souls. Like Plato and many Fathers of the Church Aquinas understood the human soul as incorporeal or immaterial and immortal. Combining the best in these views, Aquinas understood the human soul to be profoundly united with the human body in this life. The whole soul is present in every part of the body in a way analogous to God’s being wholly present in every part of the physical universe. “Form” makes something what it is, such as the form of a material object. In the case of the human immaterial soul being the form or animating principle of the body, the word “form” is used analogously. The human soul is the ultimate principle by which we conduct every one of life’s activities. It is the source not only of our powers of intellect (understanding) and will, which do not take place in bodily organs, but also of our sense (external: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; and internal: common sense, imagination, instinct and memory) and vegetative (generation, growth, nutrition) powers. Intellect and will remain in the soul after death, but the sense and vegetative powers, which have the body-soul compound as their subject, do not remain in actual existence (they survive in the soul in a virtual state only) between bodily death and resurrection. Since Aquinas saw the human person as a compound of body and soul, he considered the human soul in the intermediate state as incomplete and requiring bodily resurrection for completion. With his understanding of human nature, bodily resurrection is thus not a superfluous addition to eternal life but an important part of God’s plan of salvation. Aquinas also made contributions to understanding the traditional Christian belief in angels.30

Eastern Orthodox Churches

The Orthodox Churches of the East, like the Catholic Church, consider Scripture together with Tradition (cf. Catholic Teaching, first paragraph, below), with a focus on the Greek Fathers of the Church and the Ecumenical Councils of the Church up to the schism with the Roman Catholic Church in 1055 A.D. In their theologies and liturgies one can see an anthropological dichotomy while stressing the unity of the human person, “who is an image and likeness of God in body and soul.” While understand the human soul to be spiritual and immortal, they consider the teaching “concerning the separated souls after death” to be “an impenetrable mystery.”32 This is in line with Catholic teaching.

Today Protestant theologians are divided. Some defend the traditional dichotomy and understand the human person to be a unity of body and spiritual immortal soul (e.g., John Cooper34 “O. Cullman has revived the idea of death as a state of sleep or unconsciousness until the resurrection.” Immortality of the whole human being is understood only in terms of resurrection of the body in Christ. Others who criticize this view and who believe the soul is conscious after death interpret the Apostle Paul referring to death as “sleep” as “a natural metaphor”.36

A few significant examples of Catholic teaching related to our topic follow.

In 1215 A.D. the Fourth Lateran Council taught that: “God [Father, Son and Holy Spirit] …. Creator of all things visible and invisible … by his almighty power, from the very beginning of time has created both orders of creatures in the same way out of nothing, the spiritual or angelic world and the corporeal or visible universe. And afterwards he formed the creature man, who in a way belongs to both orders, as he is composed of spirit and body….”38

The Fifth Lateran Council, which took place from 1512-17 A.D., in response to Averroistic monopsychism, taught that: “…the soul is not only truly, of its own nature, and essentially the form of the human body…, but also it is immortal…” An article on the human soul by Bilaniuk notes that these teachings do not make the Thomistic doctrine official but “in the language most convenient at the time, only tried to defend the mystery of man in the plurality of his dimensions and the unity of his being.” Thomistic theses concerning the human soul have been favorably received by the Magisterium as “one of the best illustrations of the mystery of man.”40

In 1996 Pope John Paul II, while speaking of a significant argument in favor of the theory of evolution, also speaks of Revelation telling us that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. With regard to this he says:

It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such great dignity even in his body. Pius XII [Humani Generis, 1950] stressed this essential point: if the human body takes its origin from pre-existing living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God…. With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry? Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual is not the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again, of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans.42

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which presents a recent summary of Catholic teaching, includes a section called, “Body and Soul but Truly One.”(nn. 362-8) Among other things, it says, “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.”(n. 365) Here again we see a number of the main Thomistic theses on the human soul. The Catechism also has sections on the communion of saints including the communion of the Church of heaven and earth and the intercession of the saints in heaven for us (nn. 946-62); resurrection of the body (nn. 988-1004); life everlasting including the particular judgment, heaven, purgatory, praying for the dead, hell, the last judgment, and the new heaven and earth (nn. 1020-60).44 Of interest, we can also note here that Nancey Murphy, a strong supporter of non-reductive physicalism, acknowledges that it is not possible to disprove dualism with scientific evidence.46 Some other contemporary philosophers and/or theologians have argued either in favor of some form of dualism (e.g., Keith Yandell) or in favor of a composite view of the human person involving a profound union of physical body and spiritual or immaterial and immortal soul, along the lines of Thomas Aquinas’ influential view (e.g., Benedict Ashley; Hans Urs von Balthasar; Joseph Ratzinger; and John Crosby).48

Near Death Experiences

There have been many reports of near-death experiences with varying degrees of credibility. Such experiences are commonly reduced to mere by-products of certain physical brain states by neuroscientists who support materialism or physicalism.50 Consider, for example, the case of singer and songwriter Pam Reynolds who in 1991 had surgery to repair a grossly swollen blood vessel in her brain stem. During the procedure she was brought to a point of “clinical death”–her heart was stopped, her EEG brain waves flattened completely, her brain stem and cerebral hemispheres became unresponsive, and her body was cooled to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (well below the normal of 98.6 degrees). When she recovered she later reported having had an out-of-body experience and hovering above the operating table during the surgery. For someone knowing nothing of surgical practice she accurately described the Midas Rex bone saw used to cut open her skull and what happened during the operation including what the nurses had said. And this happened at a time when she was “clinically dead” and fully monitored by medical instruments. Cases such as that of Pam Reynolds strongly support the view that the mind or soul and consciousness can continue when the brain is no longer functional.52

The Continuing Identity of the Person

While supporters of non-reductive physicalism deny that humans have immaterial immortal souls and an intermediate state, it seems to me that this view presents a serious problem with regard to the continuing identity of human persons between bodily death, which destroys the person according to this view, and their later “reconstitution” with bodily resurrection. Consider an analogy or “thought experiment.” Suppose God were to create a clone of you now, while you are still living, with a body, memory and sense of identity identical to yours. From that point on you and your clone would not have exactly the same experiences since you and your clone would not be in exactly the same place and may indeed travel to different places, meet different people, have different experiences, and so forth. Would this “clone” be you? I think not and that this is the only logical conclusion.54 This conclusion is supported by our experience of living things such as a tree or a person. Although they can grow and change in many ways over time, as long as there is a real continuity of being and existence without interruption, the tree or the person remains the very same tree or person.


In this paper I have presented some data from the Bible and human experience that supports the traditional Christian view that the human soul continues to exist in an intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection, that it is immaterial and immortal. The position of non-reductive physicalism which holds that a human person is ontologically only physical can not be reconciled with this. The ways of God, who is a mystery of infinite love, are also in line with the criterion of maximum love. This has been shown to us, for example, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God incarnate.56 including the disabled, than non-reductive physicalism can. That our being includes not only a physical dimension but also a transcendent spiritual dimension also means that we have a greater affinity with God who is “Spirit.” This too would allow a more profound union of the human person with God in a way somewhat analogous to the Incarnation. It seems to me that if one who dies loving God can experience heaven before the resurrection and continue to play an active role in the communion of saints with Jesus, then this truly is “good news” compatible with the Christian view that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God (see Rom. 8:38-9).



2 See, e.g., Joel B. Green and Ray S. Anderson in Brown et al. (see note 1), pp. 169-73 and 190-4, respectively.

4 See, e.g., Joel Green in Brown et al. (see note 1), Ch. 7, and in From Cells to Souls—and Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature, ed. by Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 179-98.

6 See, e.g., related sections on the soul in “Phaedrus,” “Phaedo,” and “Timaeus,” in The Dialogues of Plato, trans. By Benjamin Joweth (London: Encyclopedia Britanica, Inc., 1952; and P. J. Aspell, “Plato,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition [NCE 2nd ed.] (Detroit: Thomson Gale with Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 2003), Vol. 11, pp. 407-11; and Jurgens (see note 3).

8 James C. Turro, 9:40, in The Jerome Biblical Commentary [JBC], ed. by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968).

10 The quotes are from Cooper (see note 7), pp. 55-59. See ibid., Chs. 2 and 3, for a fuller treatment of Old Testment anthropology. Cf., e.g., also John L. McKenzie, S.J., Dictionary of the Bible (New York: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965), “Sheol” and “Resurrection.”

12 McKenzie (see note 10), “Canon.”

14 Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical “On Christian Hope” Spe Salvi (30 Nov. 2007), n. 48; retrieved 22 Feb. 2008 from: <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/ encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html>. Cf. also his (as Joseph Ratzinger) Eschatology (see note 3) in which he defends both the intermediate state and the future resurrection of the dead.

16 N. T. Wright, Interview (7 Feb. 2008): “Christians Wrong About Heaven Says Bishop,” by David Van Biema; retrieved 5 Mar. 2008 from: <http://www.time.com/ time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html>. The interview is related to Wright’s new book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2008). Wright, as Bishop of Durham, is the fourth most senior cleric in the Church of England. He is also a theologian and biblical scholar who has taught at Cambridge. See, e.g., also Cooper (see note 7), pp. 127-9, and his references.

18 Joseph A. Grassi, JBC (see note 8), 56:30.

20 The citations are respectively from Joseph Fitzmyer in JBC (see note 8), 50:13; Brendan Byne in NJBC (see note 9), 48:15; and John J. O’Rourke in JBC (see note 8), 52:19.

22 Jean-Louis D’Aragon, JBC (see note 8), 64:39. Cf. Heb 12:23.

24 Ashley (see note 3), pp. 652-59. For some scholarly biblical commentary on Acts 22:30-23:11 see, e.g., Richard J. Dillon, NJBC (see note 9), 44:115.

26 Green, in Brown et al. (see note 1), p. 162.

28 See the indexes and related writings in Jurgens (see note 3).

30 Related to our topic and the limits of human understanding and language, also with regard to using such terms as “incorporeal” or “immaterial” to describe a real property of the human soul, it seems to me appropriate to consider something that Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) said. In God and the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p. 48, he speaks of our limited human understanding not only of God and human nature, but also of “matter.” Concerning this consider the Apostle Paul who speaks of our partial knowledge in this life (1 Cor. 13:9-12), as well as the state of contemporary science including physics.

32 See Calvin (note 3); and Belden C. Lane, “Recovering the Intercession of the Saints in the Reformed Tradition,” The Way: Review of Contemporary Spirituality (Oct. 1996), 36:4, 294-303.

34 Bilaniuk (see note 31).

36 See Vat. II (see note 27), Dei Verbum, Chs. 2 and 3 (the quote is from n. 10), pp. 753-8, and related biblical references. Cf. also Vat. II, “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” Lumen Gentium, Ch. III “The Church is Hierarchical,” pp. 369-87, and related biblical references. For a fuller theological treatment of Tradition and traditions see Yves Congar, Tradition and traditions: an historical and a theological essay (New York: Macmillan, 1966).

38 Ibid., p. 147.

40 GS, n. 14, in Vat. II (see note 27), pp. 914-15. Cf. also LG, nn. 50-1, in Vat. II, pp. 410-13, which speaks of the Church in heaven and on earth.

42 For a fuller treatment of this see, e.g., Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason (1998); retrieved 8 Mar. 2008 from: <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jpii_enc_151 01998_fides-et-ratio_en.html >.

44 Eccles (see note 3), pp. 10-11.

46 See Charles Probst, “The Brain and the Soul: Experiments in Brain Surgery and the Results of Research,” Dolentium Hominum (1999), 41:2:29-34; and Beauregard and O’Leary (see note 3), pp. 33-4, 150-3 and 292-3. Beauregard’s hypothesis also involves quantum theory. He sees mental activity and brain activity to be complementary. In one analogy he compares the brain “with a television receiver that translates electromagnetic waves (which exist apart from the TV receiver) into picture and sound” (p. 292). Of interest, in a recent issue of Scientific American (Oct. 2007) two neuroscientists present their views with regard to consciousness and related brain states. It seems to me that Christopher Koch’s view, that “For each conscious experience, a unique set of neurons in particular brain regions fires in a specific manner” (p. 76), is more along the lines of Eccles’ view, while Susan Greenfield’s view that “For each conscious experience, neurons across the brain synchronize into coordinated assemblies, then disband” (p. 77), is more along the lines of Beauregard’s view.

48 Wojtyla (see note 3), p. 186. With regard to the soul he also says: “In this perspective it is evident that there can be no such thing as a direct experience of the soul. Man has only the experience of the effects which he seeks to relate with an adequate cause in his being. …. the content of what is meant as the ‘experience of the soul’ consists of everything that in our previous analyses was attributed to the person’s transcendence in the action, namely, obligation, responsibility, truthfulness, self-determination, and consciousness. It is the innerness of all these moments … [which] make the vital fabric of the inner man, they inhere in his inner life, as thus experienced they are identified with the experience of the soul. But the possible knowledge of the soul is not limited solely to these moments and their specific role; it encompasses in and through them man’s entire, as it were, spiritual ego. ….”(p. 186) “…. while the body itself is the source of the reactive dynamism, specific for the human soma, and indirectly also for the emotive dynamism of the human psyche, the integration of these two dynamisms has to have a common origin with the person’s transcendence. Can we infer that it is the soul that is the ultimate source or, to put it differently, the transcending principle and also the principle of the integration of the person in the action? At any rate, it seems that this line of reasoning has brought us much closer to approaching the soul…. Our analyses indicate something like a boundary in man, which sets a limit to the scope of the dynamism and thus also of the reach of the body… They also reveal a capacity of a spiritual nature that seems to lie at the root of the person’s transcendence, but also indirectly of the integration of the person in action. …. Integration … tells us that the soul-body relation cuts across all the boundaries we find in experience and that it goes deeper and is more fundamental than they are. We thus have confirmed, even if indirectly, our earlier assertion that the complete reality of the soul itself and the soul’s relation to the body needs a more comprehensive metaphysical expression.”(p. 258) Of interest, Dutch Reform philosophical theologian Cooper (see note 7), pp. 222-6, appreciates very much Wojtyla’s Thomism.

50 P. van Lommel; R van Wees; V. Meyers; and I. Elfferich, “Near-death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands,” The Lancet (2001), Vol. 358, pp. 2039-2045.

52 See also P. Molinari; and G. B. O’Donnell, “Canonization of Saints (History and Procedure), NCE 2nd ed. (see note 6), Vol. 3, pp. 61-6; and Lane (see note 27). Re: theology and miracles see, e.g., T. G. Pater, “Miracles (Theology Of),” NCE 2nd ed. (see note 6), Vol. 9, pp. 664-70; and John Polkinghorne, Science and Theology: An Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), pp. 92-3. For accounts of miracles related to the intercession of saints see, for example, a few related to the intercession of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who was canonized by Pope John Paul II on April 30, 2000: http://thedivinemercy.org/message/stfaustina/graces.php (retrieved March 30, 2008). Two of these miracles, which are described on the website in more detail, the healings of Maureen Digan of incurable lymphedima in 1981 and the healing of Fr. Ron Pytel’s severely and permanently damaged heart in 1995, were accepted for her causes of beatification and canonization

54 Cooper (see note 7), p. 170. He provides a fuller discussion of “Monism, Re-creation, and the Problem of Personal Identity” on pp. 169-77.

56 Cf., e.g., Pope John Paul II (see note 41) and the related quote in the body of this paper.

Non-reductive physicalism, the view that ontologically we humans are not only physical but that we have real freedom, consciousness and so forth, is supported by a number of Christian authors of different specializations today. These authors generally believe that we human persons cease to exist when our bodies die but that we will be reconstituted by God in a future bodily resurrection. As a Catholic theologian, I agree with a number of points made by authors supporting non-reductive physicalism, but I disagree with their denying that we human beings have immaterial immortal souls. Non-reductive physicalism does not adequately account for all of the related data from the Bible and human experience. There are a number of biblical texts (e.g., 1 Sam. 28:3-19; Luke 23:43 and Phil. 1:23-24), according to some good biblical scholars and theologians, which support the view that the human soul continues to exist in an intermediate state between bodily death and resurrection. Jesus and his disciples also considered God to be “Spirit” and angels to be real created personal spiritual beings. The traditional Christian view that the human person is normally a profound unity of a physical body and a spiritual soul, which transcends the body, is in line with this view. Non-reductive physicalism is also not able to explain adequately some data of human experience which supports the view that a dimension of the human being (i.e., the human soul) is immaterial and immortal. These include qualia, subjective experiences such as consciousness and free will, some near-death experiences, miracles experienced related to requests for intercessory prayer by deceased saints, and human experience related to the continuing identity of persons. It seems to me that the Thomist view that the human person is a unified being, a compound of a body and an immaterial immortal soul, is more in line with biblical data and is better able to explain all of human experience than is non-reductive physicalism. It also is more in accord with all of God’s ways being expressions of maximum love. Having an immaterial immortal soul does not mean that we need to value less our bodies and ecosystem. It, however, provides a more solid foundation for defending the great intrinsic dignity of all human beings. It would mean that we have a greater affinity with God who is “Spirit” and would allow a more profound union of the human person with God in a way somewhat analogous to the Incarnation. It seems to me that, if one who dies loving God can experience heaven before the resurrection and continue to play an active role in the communion of saints, then this is truly “good news” compatible with the Christian view that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.(Rom. 8:38-9)

5/22/2008 05/22/2008 10464 The Historic Person as the Ultimate Knower

0. El debate actual sobre la interdisciplinariedad o transdisciplinariedad pone el acento sobre el conocimiento en cuanto producto objetivo, atenuando la dimensión del conocimiento como algo diferente de sus sujetos productores. Se hace necesario no olvidar la perspectiva subjetiva del conocimiento –puesta de relieve por las corrientes hermenéuticas. El último destinatario de las disciplinas científicas, filosóficas y artísticas y de las instituciones religiosas es el hombre concreto. En efecto, el individuo es el que en última instancia procesa y sintetiza la pluralidad asombrosa de experiencias, imágenes y teorías, incluidas aquellas que le llegan a través de las dimensiones objetivas de la cultura (ciencias, filosofía, arte, teología, etc.).

1. Una buena parte de la filosofía moderna occidental centró su pensamiento en el sujeto cognoscente en estado puro (Descartes: ego cogitans; Kant: el sujeto trascendental, etc.). El pensamiento científico y -más recientemente- la filosofía hermenéutica han contribuido a disolver la idea de que exista un hombre aislado, una tabula rasa, que aborde el conocimiento con una ingenuidad absoluta.

1.1. Por una parte, las ciencias nos han mostrado que somos partes de un proceso evolutivo y que portamos en nuestro cuerpo y en nuestros genes la acumulación de dicho proceso. En cierto sentido, somos ese proceso y observamos el universo a través de las características que nuestra estructura genética nos brinda: si no tuviésemos este tipo de ojos o la habilidad con nuestras manos de dedos oponibles, por ejemplo, no podríamos observar el cosmos como lo hacemos, en especial mediante los lentes ni mucho menos mediante satélites. Utilizando la expresión kantiana, se puede afirmar que hay una estructura “trascendental” de percepción radicada en nuestro interior y que supone una muy lenta y compleja evolución de la materia y de la corporeidad viviente. En otras palabras, percibimos el universo puesto que –en cierta forma- lo tenemos integrado en nuestra estructura química, física y biológica2.

1.2. Por otra parte, las ciencias del lenguaje y la filosofía hermenéutica nos han mostrado que siempre conocemos desde un lenguaje determinado. Nuestro debate hoy no sería el mismo, por ejemplo, que si viviéramos en el siglo x y nos expresáramos en latín o si habitáramos entre los mapuches del cono sur americano en siglo v de nuestra era. Obviamente, el lenguaje también es fruto de la actividad intelectual y se modifica mediante la adquisición de nuevos conocimientos y nuevas técnicas4. Un autor más cercano en el tiempo, Hans Georg Gadamer, también sostiene que el conocimiento dirigido a la cosa misma debe ser, para ser auténtico, aprehendido personalmente6. Sin embargo, incluso desde la misma perspectiva biológica, es una especie originada en otras e, hipotéticamente capaz de variar hacia otra especie distinta. Asimismo, desde el ángulo individual es un ser situado históricamente y nunca absolutamente terminado, alguien que va definiendo su originalidad personal en y a lo largo de una historia. Esta historicidad justifica que se pueda hablar de una estructura biográfica de cada ser humano8

4.3. Con argumentos extraídos fundamentalmente del estudio de las religiones comparadas y de la literatura y arte comparados10

Por otra parte, la imagen del viaje ofrece varias ventajas para la integración de los conocimientos, entre otras razones, porque localiza el conocimiento humano como histórico; éste es temporal, tanto para el sujeto como para las culturas y la humanidad. Pero es también provisorio, no terminado completamente por ninguna conquista o teoría. Por otra parte, la imagen da pie para integrar factores extra racionales, tales como la imaginación, en el proceso cognitivo. Un ejemplo tomado de la empresa de la conquista del espacio: ¿Hasta dónde influyeron los dibujos de Leonardo Da Vinci en la construcción de aviones y naves espaciales? ¿Cuál ha sido el impacto de la literatura de ciencia ficción como la de Julio Verne o Ray Bradbury para interesar y promover la investigación en el sistema solar y en el espacio en general?12. El hombre es alguien que puede ser interceptado por otro. Su historia se configura con una multiplicidad de encuentros, los que pueden ser superficiales o, en algunos casos, capaces de modificar su rumbo.

4.4.La metáfora del viaje ha de ser actualizada con la nueva visión evolutiva del cosmos: el universo y la vida están en proceso desde hace miles de millones de años. Esta esencial duración o “historicidad” del cosmos y de la vida enmarcan la fugaz historia de cada ser humano como la de un punto infinitesimal en la vasta duración del todo. Se trata de un viaje impresionantemente efímero, pero un viaje “conciente”, lo que aporta una nota inédita de luminosidad inteligible, un segmento de autoconciencia del propio cosmos. Es más, cada individuo-caminante integra en sí un impresionante mapa genético que sintetiza lo experimentado y acumulado biológica y psíquicamente por sus antepasados. Asimismo, a través de la cultura, es heredero también de los descubrimientos, creaciones y logros de la humanidad entera. Todo esto hace de él un caminante no totalmente ingenuo, sino habilitado por múltiples condicionantes de conocimiento

4.5. Cada historia es original y, por eso, el tránsito humano es sumamente heterogéneo: hay niños que viven pocos días, hay ancianos que deambulan casi cien años, hay quienes jamás conocerán el hambre y otros a los que esa pulsión vital acompañará desde su nacimiento; están los que accederán a una educación completa hasta llegar a complejas especializaciones y quienes conocerán del lenguaje sólo su expresión oral; hay hombres y mujeres para quienes el escenario habitual será el de la naturaleza y otros cuyo paisaje cotidiano será el constituido por el gris de los muros y las luces artificiales de la urbe.

4.6. Las ideas de camino y viaje, tanto en su sentido literal como en el metafórico, sugieren numerosas interrelaciones entre disciplinas diversas. La combinación entre ciencia y viaje, por ejemplo, ha sido frecuente en la historia del pensamiento. Charles Darwin elaboró y confirmó su particular visión sobre la transformación de las especies vivientes después de su viaje por el hemisferio sur14. Por otra parte, el tópico del viaje en la literatura es clásico16. También algunos pensadores místicos emplearon la metáfora del viaje, como San Juan de la Cruz es un notable representante de ello. Asimismo, hay un recurso de las metáforas cercanas al viaje en el pensamiento estrictamente teológico18. Aunque el concepto ha sufrido una enorme transformación durante la edad moderna y contemporánea, su sustrato semántico permanece válido. Hay un último sujeto reflexivamente cognoscente y libremente operante en el cosmos. A pesar de todos los intentos de reduccionismos que acentúen la homogeneidad del ser humano con el resto del mundo animal, permanece la enigmática condición de un ser que puede interrogarse sobre el sentido del cosmos y de su propia existencia.

La reelaboración de este concepto parece imprescindible en el horizonte cultural de nuestro tiempo. Algo más, un alguien, emerge en el contexto de percepciones y lenguajes: se trata precisamente de quien puede descifrar el laberinto icónico y hermenéutico del mundo natural y humano. Tampoco satisface plenamente el discurso originado en las ciencias biológicas que restringen los elementos más sorprendentes del fenómeno humano a originalidades genéticas, conexiones neurológicas o simplemente casualidades físico-químicas. Subsiste un plus en el hombre que permanece como una incógnita incluso delante de las tecnologías investigativas más sofisticadas.

5.2. Las religiones ofrecen al hombre un horizonte de comprensión caracterizada por la tonalidad de lo absoluto: hay alguien o algo –denominado “dios” o “dioses”- que trasciende las dimensiones relativas del paisaje en el que el hombre transita. Hay algo definitivo en el paisaje, algo que le confiere su última tonalidad y consistencia. Sin él, el resto de los parciales horizontes comprensivos pierden su significativad. En efecto, la experiencia religiosa tiende a proporcionar una perspectiva centrada en la alteridad absoluta (el totalmente otro) de alguien o algo que confiere un sentido definitivo al mismo sujeto y su entorno. Lo religioso actúa como estructura última de configuración de la percepción del sujeto-caminante.

El horizonte religioso se manifiesta como oculto entre los otros marcos fenoménicos. Es un horizonte simultáneamente lejano, puesto que no está al alcance de la experiencia fáctica ni de lo comprensión meramente racional, y cercano, ya que es visto como “marco de los marcos”, es decir, como necesaria condición para la existencia del paisaje, como íntima consistencia de los contornos y sentidos que enfrentan sus sentidos y su inteligencia.

Para aquellas religiones que sostienen una idea personalista de la divinidad, el horizonte toma la figura de lo personal. De este modo, el todo de la geografía queda abrazada por un “alguien”, por una entidad a quien se puede tratar de “tú”. El paisaje global adquiere la tonalidad de lo personal; no significa esto que se desdibujen las explicaciones racionales y empíricas del cosmos, sino más bien que el último referente del todo no es ni una teoría, ni una fórmula matemática, ni siquiera un motor inmóvil o un arquitecto sin rostro, sino un sujeto personal, con fisonomía y con expresión. Para las religiones reveladas, además, el horizonte toma la iniciativa y sale él mismo al encuentro. En efecto, para estas religiones lo divino personal ingresa en la topografía mundana y en el escenario humano20 está configurando una imagen del hombre muy gravitada por las estructuras físicas, químicas, genéticas, sociales, lingüísticas, culturales, psicológicas, etc. Dentro de ese plexo fenoménico mantiene la afirmación acerca de la distintividad personal del ser humano en el conjunto de los seres del universo conocido22.


2 “El puesto del cosmos en el hombre” (La Nación, Bs. As., 2-12-01, suplemento de Cultura, 1 y 8.). Massuh hace notar cómo, a partir de los datos de la genética, se están comprendiendo los componentes evolutivos, físicos y químicos presentes en la originalidad de cada persona humana.

4 De unitate intellectus contra averroistas c.3.

6 Naturalmente, no es ésta la posición de varias corrientes filosóficas del siglo XX y XXI que consideran que la esencia humana se define al final (existencialismos) o simplemente no existe (nihilismos) o nos es inaccesible (positivismos).

8 Muerte e inmortalidad, Barcelona 1970, pp. 132-134.

10 Tal como es utilizado en la exégesis de los salmos en Alonso Schokel, Luis, Treinta salmos. Poesía y oración. Madrid 1986: “Llamo arquetípico a este símbolo (el camino), porque arranca de una experiencia radical del espacio y en un segundo momento genera símbolos”; se caracteriza por ser “básico y universal” (nota 6, p. 46), no condicionado por la cultura (cf. p.114). El tema del camino y del viaje es recurrente en el pensamiento bíblico (cfr. voz “camino” en AAVV. Concordancia de la Biblia. Nuevo Testamento. Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer y Mensajero, 1975, pp. 72-74). Se prosigue el uso metafórico del viaje en el pensamiento cristiano; como ejemplo: El cristiano emprende “una larga travesía con pequeñas barcas” (SAN GREGORIO NACIANCENO, Poemas teológicos, 1).

12 Cf. las interesantes consecuencias teológicas extraídas por Yves Congar en: “Del encuentro humano como misterio”, en Llamados a la vida, Herder, Barcelona,1988, pp.71-81.

14 Cfr. GALLENI, LUDOVICO, ”Lettres d´un Paléontologue. Neuf lettres inédites de Pierre Teilhard de Chardin á Marcellin Boule”, en Revue des questions scientifiques, Tome CLXXII-1001, con nueve cartas de viaje encontradas sorpresivamente hace pocos años que reflejan también una atención al panorama humano, social y político de la China de entonces)

16 ORTEGA Y GASSET, JOSÈ, Obras completas II, Alianza-Revista de Occidente, Madrid, 1987, p. 247

18 Cfr. MILANO, ANDREA, Persona in teologia, Dehoniane, Napoli, 1984.

20 Entre la copiosa bibliografía, se puede mencionar: PEACOCKE, ARTHUR, Theology for a Scientific Age. Being and Becoming-Natural, Divine, and Human, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1993; POLKINGHORNE, JOHN, Belief in God in an Age of Science, Yale University Press, New Haven 1998: IBIDEM, El Dios de la Esperanza y el fin del mundo, Epifanía, Buenos Aires 2005; GALLENI, LUDOVICO, Ciencia y teología. Propuestas para una síntesis fecunda, Epifanía, Buenos Aires, 2007; TANZELLA-NITTI, GIUSEPPE y STRUMIA, ALBERTO, Dizionario Interdisciplinare di Scienza e Fede, Urbaniana University Press y Citta Nuova, Roma 2002. Para ver el tema tal como se lo está pensando en Latinoamérica, cfr: URRUTIA ALBISUA, E.- BLÁZQUEZ ORTEGA, J. J. (editores). Ciencia y religión hoy. Diálogos en torno a la naturaleza, 2003. FLORIO, LUCIO (editor). Ciencias, Filosofía y Teología. En búsqueda de una cosmovisión, Dirección de Escuelas, La Plata 2004; FLORIO, LUCIO (compilador), Evolución y Cristianismo. Un diálogo posible, Dunken, Buenos Aires 2007.

22 Estas afirmaciones necesitan de una fundamentación pos-crítica, después de que buena parte de la filosofía moderna y contemporánea ha puesto la entidad última del conocimiento en otras realidades: la estructura trascendental, el Espíritu Absoluto, el psiquismo inconsciente, las estructuras de poder, el gen, etc.

The debate on the nature of knowledge today stresses knowledge itself as an objective product. Nevertheless, it would be necessary to add to it a personal perspective of knowledge. In fact, the person is the ultimate “addressee” of the scientific, philosophical and artistic disciplines and religious institutions. The concrete human being is the one who knows. Modern Western philosophy based its thinking on the knowing subject—Descartes grounds it on the ego cogitans, Kant on the transcendental subject. Scientific thinking and hermeneutical philosophy have more recently contributed to the dissolution of the idea of an isolated man, a tabula rasa, a blank sheet, which can receive knowledge with an absolute naivety.

On the one hand, science has shown us that we are part of an evolutionary process and that we carry in our bodies and genes the accumulation of such process. Somehow we are this process, and we watch the universe by means of the features given by our genetic structure. There is a ‘transcendental’ structure of perception which is in our inner self and that implies a very slow and complex evolution of matter and living corporality.

Moreover, the sciences of language and hermeneutic philosophy have shown us that we always learn from a given language. Obviously, language is also a result of intellectual activity, and it is modified by the acquisition of new knowledge and new techniques.

It is necessary to remember a word considered a difficult expression today: worldview. This expression, which comes from the translation of the German word Weltanschaaung, indicates the global view of the reality shaped by a man or a society. The worldview involves a certain philosophy and/or theology which organizes the perception of reality. It is often distinguished from “image of the world” (Weltbild), which is the picture of nature, conformed by current time science. There is obviously a close relationship between them. Some authors say that, as a consequence of the present situation—generically called postmodernism—it is very difficult to achieve a worldview. Fragmentariness seems to be included as an essential part of present time mentality. In some way, there is not a real human knowledge but within a worldview elaborated by the individual.

But this man is a historic being. In fact, a human being is permanent in nature but never absolutely fulfilled. He keeps defining his personal originality in and through his story. This historicity is collective and individual.

The Western and Eastern medieval tradition developed the concept of “person” which validity perpetuates, at least as a semantic substrate, in our times. It is important to consider the originality of a person as a subject of knowledge. This person is unique and dynamic. It implies that every reflection on interdisciplinary or transdisciplinarity should include the existential and historic way of comprehension. It is finally this person in this context and this moment who does the comprehension and integration of knowledge.

5/22/2008 05/22/2008 10465 Causality, Personal Causality, and the Science/Religion Dialogue


The apparent conflict between science and religion is often viewed and argued with respect to the existence of God. In particular, demonstrations of God’s existence feature prominently in these discussions. The idea, presumably, is to show that God must exist, therefore science cannot dispense with God or theology, for that matter. Typically these demonstrations utilize causality in some form, require a certain philosophical framework, and purport to show the existence of an unmoved mover or similar entity. To be sure, this is a useful contribution to the science/religion dialogue. If God’s existence can be demonstrated in an unequivocable manner, science could not ever be regarded as the sole or perhaps even the most important source of knowledge. The question, therefore, turns on the efficacy of the proofs offered. Because they generally rely on the notion of causality in the physical world, which has been very controversial at least since the time of Hume, their value is likewise controversial. Nonetheless, causality should not be ruled out altogether, since it may be incontrovertible under some circumstances, and therefore useful. If one could identify these circumstances, and show that they are intimately associated with the idea of personhood, then the significance of the proofs as well as the whole nature of the science/religion dialogue would change.

I. Causality and Knowledge

Causality has been a fundamental concept in the history of philosophy, theology, and of science since the time of the ancient Greeks. This is due to the role (or presumed role) of causality with respect to nature, knowledge, and morality. Especially important has been the notion of real production of effects associated with causes. The importance of causality for the science/religion dialogue can scarcely be overstated. To understand it, we begin with a brief review of development and role of the notion of causality. This may conveniently be divided into five major phases, shown in Figure 1.

Phase 1. Metaphysical: causality as a principle of nature

The first phase, from the Pre-Socratics (c. 600 BC-400 BC) to William of Ockham (c. 1288-c. 1347), saw the origin and elaboration of the “classical” or “traditional” notion of causality, which was principally the work of Aristotle. During this epoch, causality was viewed as a principle of nature, valid for all things, and therefore the base of much of our knowledge. It became the fundamental explanatory paradigm for the sciences: all true or real knowledge is of causes in the strict, deterministic sense.

Aristotle distinguished four types of cause: material, formal, efficient, and final. Of these, efficient causality, that dealing with production of effects, became the most controversial. Real production of effects means that the cause actually produces the effects that we observe; it is not simply coincident with them (constant conjunction). Aristotle went beyond this, however, and made the four causes the key to all change, i.e., all that happens in the world. Correlatively, knowledge of the four causes became the source of all knowledge about the world, and philosophy itself, defined as “knowledge

Figure 1. The Five Phases of the Development of Causality

through causes”. The knowledge Aristotle envisioned was not just any kind of knowledge. It could have no admixture of uncertainty: we know in the true sense only when we know why things are the way that they are, and why they cannot be otherwise than they are. In other words, we are looking at a strict determinism both in the world and in our knowledge of it. Likewise implied is the idea that everything which happens must have a cause—the universality of causal explanation. Causality was thus elevated to the status of a metaphysical principle with universal applicability; hence it was used to make inferences about things that cannot be directly experienced.

On this basis, causality was employed in natural theology, forming the basis for many proofs of the existence of God. As it was understood, a cause really produces its effects, not merely in a phenomenological sense such as constant conjunction, but in a metaphysical sense. During this epoch, nearly all proofs of the existence of God, with the exception of the ontological argument, utilized causality as a principle of nature, and assumed that it was a universally valid principle that could be employed to reason from things of direct experience to realms far removed from that experience. The best-known type of such proofs is the cosmological argument, appropriately named because it utilizes causal reasoning about facts (deemed incontrovertible) of the cosmos to infer the existence of some type of being, such as a prime mover.2

In the West, Scholasticism began with St. Anselm (1033-1109), who is best known in philosophy for his proofs of the existence of God, especially what has become known as the “Ontological Argument.” Anselm was solidly in the Augustinian tradition, and was unfamiliar with the works of Aristotle, which were to become known in the West in the next century. In the Monologium, he gave proofs of the “standard” sort, based on causal arguments. In the Proslogium, he gave the “Ontological argument”, which is non-causal. Briefly, the argument runs as follows: if we say that God is an entity that is the greatest possible, then no greater entity can exist. But if God existed only in the mind, then we could imagine Him existing in reality, which is greater. Therefore we can imagine something greater than God, if he does not exist. But this is a contradiction to our premise. Therefore God must exist. Though always controversial, this argument later found use in phase two, when causal proofs could not be employed.

St. Thomas accepted the idea of real production, and believed that causes are “out there”, that we can perceive them, and that, indeed, everything that happens is caused by something. Causality, for him as for Aristotle, becomes the basis of change in the world and at the same time our knowledge of it. St. Thomas’ principal contribution to the theory of causality has to do with creation ex nihilo, which is a fact of Revelation that Aristotle never considered. Aristotle’s definition of efficient causality requires that one thing act on another, already existing thing, to bring it from potency to act. St. Thomas basically generalizes the notion of efficient causality to mean contributing being to, or contributing to the being or becoming of something else. Or in other words, efficient causality in the sense of creation does not refer to motion and applies to the entire being of the effect, whereas ordinary efficient causality has to do with motion and applies to only part of the being of the effect.4

For Ockham, philosophy and theology are completely separate, and the idea that things, such as they are in the world, could have any influence on the Divine Will, or in any way circumscribe Divine action, is summarily rejected. This is diametrically opposite, of course, to the position of Averoës, and represents a significant downgrading of the idea that causality is about things in the world in some real sense. Ockham’s main contribution to the theory of causality is his rejection of the idea of necessity in causes, that is, his rejection of the idea that there is a necessary connection between cause and effect. He also rejects the idea that we can somehow perceive causes with the mind, falling back on the idea of constant conjunction, together with the idea that if A causes B, and A is taken away, then B also goes away, implies that A is a cause of B. Ockham rejects the “first mover” proof of the existence of God, because it cannot be shown that everything which is moved must be moved by something else. Moreover, he rejects the idea that an infinite regress of causes is possible. And he rejects the proof from finality.

Phase 2. Epistemological: causality as a principle of understanding

This second phase receives the idea of causality more or less unchanged from the first phase. But in light of the endless controversies from that phase—about nature, universals, and proofs for the existence of God, together with the manifest failure to achieve the objectives proposed, namely secure knowledge of the world—the second phase sought to construct a secure foundation for knowing, and for this it preferentially employed causality as a principle of knowing rather than a principle of nature. As a result, causality, rather than being a tool for understanding what is happening in the world, became more important with respect to the link from the world to our ideas about it. There was less interest in what is happening in the world, with respect to cause and effect, and more with respect to the problem of what causes our ideas and how we can be sure that they are adequate and convey truth to us. To guarantee this link, it becomes necessary to invoke God himself. Thus in this phase, the focus of causality shifts from investigation of things and change in the world, to justification of our knowledge about the world. This is a very significant change, though not a re-thinking of causality. Philosophers still accepted the notion of causality as developed in the classical tradition (few bought into Ockham’s critique), but they used it differently. Not surprisingly, the philosophers of this period relied heavily on the ontological argument, since it is not based on reasoning from causes in the world, and more importantly, it established the existence of God, who can then be invoked for the above-mentioned guarantee of non-deception.

This phase begins with René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes inherited classical philosophy in almost all of its aspects, and also its fundamental horizon of nihility. But he had a different agenda. He felt that much of the certainty about life, about knowledge, about faith, and about things, which characterized the Middle Ages, had disappeared. So he was concerned with reestablishing certainty, with building a firm foundation for knowledge and belief—in things, in the world, in God. Descartes’ procedure, as is well-known, is to begin by doubting everything that can possibly be doubted, and then gradually rebuilding knowledge on the basis of the things he believes cannot be doubted. This led him to his famous first non-doubtable principle, the Cogito, ergo sum. But Descartes needed causality to complete his task. With respect to causality, he did not dispute any of its principle characteristics. For him, as for Aristotle and most of the philosophical tradition since, a cause has power to make things happen; and he relies upon this, as unquestionably true, to help him in out of his self-imposed doubts. Specifically, he restored his confidence in his ability to know things about the world by calling upon God to guarantee the causal link from the outside world to the ideas in his mind about it:

But since God is no deceiver, it is evident that He does not of Himself, and immediately, communicate those ideas [about bodies] to me. Nor does he do so by means of some creature…For he has given me…a very strong inclination to believe that those ideas are conveyed to me by corporeal things, I do not see how He could be defended against the charge of deception, were the ideas produced [caused] otherwise than by corporeal things. We have, therefore, no option save to conclude that corporeal things do indeed exist. [Med. VI, p. 72.]

So now causality, rather than primarily being a tool for understanding what is happening in the world, is needed to guarantee the link from the world to our ideas about it.

This phase includes the continental rationalists (Spinoza, Leibnitz), and the English empiricists Locke and Berkeley. Spinoza says, “The idea of an individual thing actually existing is caused by God…” (Ethics, Prop. IX). For Leibnitz, since God created the monads, and established the harmonious working of the universe, He caused the harmony, and in particular, He caused us—human monads—to have ideas about the world which appear precisely in the order and at the time that actual changes occur there.6 For Berkeley, more than just their guarantor, God directly causes our ideas of the world; this extends to observed regularities in the world, which Berkeley calls the Laws of Nature.8 For Hume, there is no perception of any link or connection between a cause and an effect:

Should anyone…pretend to define a cause, by saying it is something productive of another, it is evident he would say nothing. For what does he mean by production? Can he give any definition of it, that will not be the same with that of causation? If he can, I desire that it be produced. If he cannot, he here runs in a circle, and gives a synonymous term instead of a definition.10

This, presumably, also applies to the Ontological Argument. But Hume still has a use for causality. Hume explicitly accepts three of the classical characteristics of causality: temporal priority,12 and uniformity (which he terms “necessity”). It may seem surprising at first sight that he would retain this latter; but for him, it is related to the idea of causes as constant conjunction. And, he wished to extend the idea to the moral arena, so that morality becomes nothing more than a tendency to always associate certain activities with certain “pleasing sentiments of approbation”. Hume wants to make all causes necessary—i.e., deterministic or uniform—to avoid any possibility of something “occult” —some unknown power or agency—coming into the picture.14[Italics added]

This law, of course, points to a law giver. If one accepts the general Kantian approach that moral knowledge is more secure than knowledge of the external world, or equivalently, if one believes for another reason that certain moral imperatives (or facts) are absolute, there would be reasons to question the any philosophical position (such as the omnicompetence of science) that denies this absolute character. Zubiri observes,

Speculative reason had seen, in causality, temporal determination; here we find ourselves with something different: a determination in the intelligible world—a strict causality which is only in the intelligible order. Hence, what was simply a possibility for speculative reason, is an objective reality for practical reason. Why? Because practical reason has a datum which theoretical reason absolutely lacks, the absolute datum of morality, of the will.16

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), attempted to modify Hume’s theory of causality as constant conjunction so that it could serve as the basis for empirical science. For Mill, the various uniformities found in nature we term the “laws of Nature”. He was especially interested in what he terms the process of induction, which is how scientific laws are created from observation, experiment, and other sources. He is also interested in the reasoning processes by which conclusions are deduced from those laws, and other aspects of the reasoning that takes place in the conduct of science. For this, he believes that uniformity of nature and the law of cause and effect are both requisite. He explicitly tells us that he has no interest in metaphysical questions and inferences based on causality. Mill’s remarks make clear the shift in emphasis from pure philosophical speculation about causality, to an understanding of it based on the process and outcome of science:

I make no research into the ultimate or ontological cause of anything….the causes with which I concern myself are not efficient, but physical causes. They are causes in that sense alone, in which one physical fact is said to be the cause of another. Of the efficient causes of phenomena, or whether any such causes exist at all, I am not called upon to give an opinion.18

This notion Mill attributes to “that invariability of succession…found by observation to obtain between every fact in nature and some other fact which has preceded it.”20

So for Mill, the last major thinker on causality prior to the upheavals of the 20th century, most of the major pillars of causality were still intact: determinism, universality, contiguity, and temporal priority. The focus is still on causality as the basis for our knowledge of the world, though Mill is ambivalent about his “facts” and whether they are about things in the world.

However, since causality is no longer considered to be a metaphysical principle universally valid for things, it cannot be used in the “old” way (the cosmological argument) to prove the existence of God. Hume and Mill, therefore, rejected proofs of God’s existence. Kant recognized that we have other sources of knowledge, and while rejecting the cosmological proofs, argued that we can infer God’s existence based on our knowledge of ourselves, and specifically, of our knowledge that we can cause things to happen in the traditional sense of production of reality. This, of course, represented another but lesser-known “Copernican revolution” in Kant’s philosophy.

Phase 4. The Scientific Crisis of Causality in the 20th Century

In the fourth phase, the very development of science compelled abandonment of key elements of the traditional notion of causality—the same elements that were considered indispensable in all the previous phases—thus revealing that notion as inadequate. The revolution in science also had profound implications for philosophy, which had always believed that it alone dominated the discussion of the bases of knowing. While epistemology is still within the realm of philosophy, philosophy now recognizes that science can tell us enough about the world that we cannot necessarily rely upon truths considered self-evident from our ordinary range of experience. Of course, theologians have recognized this for centuries.

The principal developments in science were:

    • Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which dethroned Newton’s absolute space and time, together with simultaneity and the notion of fixed time throughout the universe.

    • Quantum mechanics, which introduced pervasive and inescapable indeterminism in our knowledge of nature (and nature itself), effectively demolishing the idea of infinitely precise physical quantities for things, such as momentum, position, time, and energy, and thus destroying the possibility of Laplace’s Demon.

  • Chaos theory, and the recognition that even deterministic laws, such as those of Newton, were insufficient to guarantee ordered behavior. 22 As we shall see, the power of the real finds its most important application in natural theology. The components of the traditional notion of causality can be visualized as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Distinct Notions Conflated in Traditional Understanding of Causality. Note that traditional causality is a subset of functionality.

II. New Understanding of Causality

To appreciate the clarity that Zubiri’s new vision provides, and the ways in which it resolves problems with traditional views while maintaining the important insights in them, we shall examine the three notions in some detail. Then we shall examine one key consequence, namely Zubiri’s theory of personal causality and its place in demonstrations related to the existence of God.

What is Functionality?

In classical philosophy, causality expressed a particular type of relationship between two things (or events, or processes). Such relationships, with the characteristics described above (determinism, uniformity, real production, etc.), were assumed to be the only ones possible, at least in the sense that all others ultimately reduce to them. As such, they formed the basis for knowledge in classical philosophy, and did so even through the time of Kant. For some schools of thought, such as the Scholastic and neo-Scholastic, they still do.24

To clarify the distinction between functionality and causality, especially causality in the classical sense, Zubiri points out that functionality does not require the notion of the real influence of cause on effect:

From my point of view, causality is the functionality of the real qua real. Taken in its fullness, this concept of functionality is liberated from the idea of “influence”, and most importantly, leaves open the type of causality which may intervene in each case. The reality itself of the real, as its own physical moment, is founded on the absolutely absolute reality; therefore, a functionality of reality itself with respect to God exists.26 There is no inferential process required at that level (though this is not the case at the level of logos and reason). How is it given? Zubiri’s radical rethinking of intellection supplies the answer:

…functionality is formally sensed, i.e., not only is it something accessible, it is something for which access is already physically given in sentient intellection, in the transcendental “toward”.28

Or to paraphrase Zubiri’s discussion, the ringing of the bell is apprehended as real in a primordial apprehension, the same one in which the pulling of the cord is apprehended as real. This is functionality at the level of primordial apprehension, not at the level of logos or reason, where Hume was looking. Thus the ringing of the bell is apprehended as a real function of the pulling of the cord, whether or not the pulling of the cord actually operates the bell by itself. Moreover, it would still express a relationship even if pulling the cord only made the bell sound 60% of the time, though it could not be Hume’s causality:

Functionality is functionality of the real inasmuch as it is real. In this sense it is a concept which encompasses many possible types. This formality, this “by” as such, is given in the impression of reality. Hume’s whole critique is based upon the content of sensing, but he erred on the matter of formality.30

Real Production

We discussed the notion of real production of effects above, and noted that it is an idea developed over the course of the first phase of the history of causality. The key idea is that the cause really produces the effect, and does so through the interaction of two real things—that which acts as cause, and that which receives the action of the cause. The metaphysical connection between the two is often expressed by means of a counterfactual conditional. For example, take the causal statement, “John killed Bob.” Then consider the counterfactual conditional statement, “If John had not been here, Bob would not have been killed.” The modal implications of such statements is what reveals the metaphysical connection, which is absent in the case of constant conjunction causality. For example, consider the statement, “All the metal in Smith’s car is rusty.” Clearly this will not support the counterfactual, “If this piece of metal were in Smith’s car, it would be rusty.” The metaphysical connection between cause and effect, something that goes beyond what science utilizes or needs, or even what we use or need in everyday life, is what gives causality in the sense of real production its great impact. But it is also what limits its applicability, because we can only rarely determine if such a connection exists, and what its nature is. That was the mistake of philosophers in phases one and two—the failure to realize the true scope of causality, and the inapplicability of extrapolations of real production to all relationships where we perceive a connection.

What is Power of the Real?

The notion of power derives from a primordial experience of reality: it resists us (as in the force of nature), but at the same time captivates us (as in the beauty of nature), dominates us, and we must yield to it. Reality is “more” than individual characteristics, more than real things, but “more” in them:

And to dominate is just this: to be “more” but in the thing itself; the reality as reality is dominating in this thing, in each real thing. It is not the case that being dominant consists in being more important than being green, but that the moment of reality physically determines, without being a cause, that the green is a form of reality…. Consequently, this dominion is what we may call power. To dominate is “more”, it is to have power. Here “power” does not mean to be a cause.32

Zubiri refers to the capacity which real things have to be given meaning in our life, as in the case of the door, as condition. Using this notion he refines his distinction between causality and power:

If causality strictly speaking is the functionality of the real qua real, condition is the capacity of the real to have meaning, and consequently belongs to the real thing. Power is the dominating condition of the real qua real, in contradistinction to causality which is the functionality of the real qua real. And precisely because it pertains and belongs to reality in itself qua real, it is something which affects not only the attitude of man, but the very structure of things qua real.34 Power, on the other hand, is the dominance of the real qua real.36

Causality (as functionality of the real) and power (as dominance of the real) are thus two separate notions, corresponding to different problems and different areas of applicability.

III. Analysis of Causality as applied to Proofs of God’s Existence

In his discussion of Hume, in his main work, Sentient Intelligence, Zubiri distinguishes and relates causality and functionality, emphasizing that, in most instances, we do not perceive the real influence, i.e., the power, of cause upon effect. Therefore causes in the classical sense are not given in ordinary experience, and so cannot be used as the basis for extrapolation beyond such experience, and thus the cosmological argument fails.

Nonetheless it is useful to examine in more detail the traditional approach to causality-based proofs of the existence of God, to learn about the deep and perhaps hidden assumptions in them. St. Thomas utilizes the vocabulary and concepts of Aristotle’s metaphysics, including the notion of change as reduction from potency to act (first proof), the notion of efficient causality (second proof), certain ideas about possibility and necessity (third proof), distinct degrees of being and notion that higher cannot come from lower (fourth proof), and convergence of cosmos toward an end (fifth proof). In every case, the soundness of the proof depends on the truth of Aristotle’s metaphysics. As an example, consider the second proof:

In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.38

For Zubiri, all human life is, in some respect, an experience of the power of the real. Each person is, in his very constitution, turned toward a reality which is more than he is, and on which he is based. This reality is that from which emerge the resources he needs to make his personality, and which supplies him with the force necessary to carry out this process of realizing himself. This turning of a person to reality is what Zubiri terms religation (from the Latin, re-ligere, “re-tied”). It is a turning toward some ground not found among things immediately given, something which must be sought beyond what is given:

…Zubiri shows that the power of the real that is manifested in religation cannot be grounded in any particular real thing, but only in a reality that is absolutely absolute…for Zubiri, the way of religation leads to an absolutely absolute reality, which will be the ground of the world, understood as the unity of real things, not by virtue of their properties, but their character of reality.40 Religation, clearly, is not a cosmic phenomenon, but neither is it something subjective:42

The power of the real, through religation, reveals to us something very important and very fundamental about our experience in its totality, and it does so in a way that does not require any philosophical system, such as that of classical philosophy. Moreover, Zubiri was keenly aware of the fact that what we call “God” is not just the ground of human life, but of the world as well. For that reason, he sought a way to integrate them, and that is why power of the real is expressed in terms of the absolutely absolute and the relatively absolute.

In each person’s life there is the experience of the power of the real, and the experience of personal causality, both of which cause us to turn to something beyond what is given at the superficial level of ordinary life. Refer to Figure 3 for a schematic representation. This is not an airtight demonstration, nor is it intended to be; it is an analysis of human experience that reveals something not explicable or even expressible in scientific terms. One can still reject the conclusion that the reality ground refers to God; the atheist does so by arguing that he or she needs no grounding—life is self-sufficient. The agnostic does so by claiming that any such ground is unknowable. A discussion of these views is beyond the scope of this article, however.

Figure 3. Existence of God Through Personal Causality and Power of the Real

The object of reasoning, “demonstrations” if one wishes, as we noted is not to develop an irrefutable “proof” of God’s existence. Such proofs as have been proposed have never convinced everyone, and actually had little to do with the faith of most people. Rather, it was their experience of life—personal causality and the power of the real—that was their real contact with the reality ground that Zubiri terms “God”. Our understanding of God consequently changes in some ways from the traditional understanding, in the sense that the way of religation and personal causality leads to what we normally understand by God—an ultimate reality, source of our possibilities, to whom we petition for help. The traditional ways led rather to metaphysical constructions.44

In Zubiri’s view, this comes about because one of the two persons involved, namely the divine, is in fact interior to the human person. Thus,

…the help that God provides stems from the very depths of the human person. To help, to console, to listen, etc., are not mere psychic phenomena, but are the metaphysical forms through which God is constituting me in my being. Because of this, each human being, whether he or she knows it or not, has the experience of God. This is not the empirical experience of an object, but a metaphysical experience of the ground of his or her personal being. This experience is in itself the experience of God. God is something experienced.1 These “facts” were often metaphysical in nature; for example, the belief that all motion is reduction of potency to act, which required a contiguous efficient cause. Such arguments are perforce weaker than those based directly on the fact of change in the universe.

3 F. Meehan, Efficient Causality in Aristotle and St. Thomas, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1940,Meehan, p. 187.

5 Gottfried Leibnitz, Discourse on Metaphysics, p. 277.

7 George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, part I, para. 30.

9 Ibid., Bk I, part III., sec. 2.

11 Treatise, Bk I, sec. 2.

13 Ezra Talmor, Descartes and Hume, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1980, p. 127,

15 Xavier Zubiri, Problemas fundamentales de la metafísica occidental, p. 229 (Hereafter, PFM).

17 John Stuart Mill, System of Logic, Bk III, ch. V, 2, p. 377.

19 Ibid.

21 The nature of chaos is sometimes misunderstood. Technically, if initial conditions were able to be specified with sufficient precision – which might mean dozens of decimal places – the chaotic systems could be made predictable for any desired time into the future, though their behavior would remain extremely erratic by normal standards. In fact, however, the necessary degree of precision is chimerical because of quantum mechanical limitations, random noise, and limitations imposed by the atomic structure of the measuring instruments. Philosophically, one could go on maintaining that any arbitrary degree of precision in measurements has meaning; scientifically, in terms of what can physically be measured, it does not.

23 Jacques Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy, tr. by E. I. Watkin, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1962, p. 64.

25 Xavier Zubiri, El hombre y Dios, p. 152. (translation of Mr. Joaquin Redondo; hereafter, HD).

27 IL, p. 40.

29 IL, p. 41.

31 HD, p. 87, translation of Mr. Joaquin Redondo.

33 PFHR, 42-43, translation of Mr. Joaquin Redondo.

35 ED, p. 320; PFHR, p. 43, 61.

37 St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, 1 q.2 a.3.

39 González, op. cit., p. 101, author’s translation.

41 Cf. X. Zubiri, HD, p. 128.

43 González, op. cit., p. 104, author’s translation.

45 Ibid.

Causality has been a key concept throughout the history of philosophy. One of its main uses has been in securing proofs of the existence of God. A review of the history of causality discloses five distinct phases, with major changes to the uses and understanding of causality. The first phase saw the development of the traditional notion of causality, on which rests the best-known proofs of God’s existence. In this phase, causality was considered to be a principle of nature. Later phases rejected proofs based on causality understood in this fashion but still relied upon the same basic idea of causality for other purposes. The whole notion of causality became very confused, especially after developments in physics during the 20th century. Zubiri pointed out that there are really three elements conflated in our idea of causality: real production of effects, functionality, and power of the real. By sorting these out and recognizing that causality in the majority of cases is merely a type of functional relation between “cause” and “effect”, many problems are greatly clarified. The type of functionality involved varies greatly and can involve notions unknown to Aristotle, Hume, or Kant. But especially important is the case of causality involving human beings, since knowledge of direct production of effects is available there that is absent elsewhere. Combined with understanding of the power of the real, Zubiri shows that we have knowledge of what he terms a “reality ground,” which theists call “God”. Causality once again becomes a key element of natural theology, though in a different and more rigorous way than in traditional proofs of God’s existence.

5/22/2008 05/22/2008 10466 Introduction to the Philosophy Xavier Zubiri


The creation of a new philosophical system is a staggeringly difficult task, fraught with myriad dangers, pitfalls, and problems.  Only one of supreme genius can undertake this enterprise with any expectation of success, and then only when old ways of thought have shown themselves inadequate to cope with the march of human knowledge.  It is fortunate that these conditions have been fulfilled in our day and in the person of Xavier Zubiri (1898-1983).  No one can say now if this or any future philosophical system will be the definitive one; but Zubiri’s effort is surely the grandest, most boldly and most radically conceived effort to integrate the Western (and to a considerable extent, Eastern) philosophical tradition, the explosive growth of scientific knowledge, and the rich artistic, literary, and cultural traditions of European and world civilization. 

Of course the history of philosophy is littered with corpses of failed systems.  Many are the philosophers who, contemplating this situation, saw in it nothing but an inconvenient fact arising from some fault in the assumptions, reasoning, or scope of their predecessors’ work.  Each expected to put paid to this situation once and for all with his own new and improved philosophy, only to see it fall to the same fate.2   The object and process of knowing are completely intertwined, and any comprehensive philosophy must address and encompass both together in its vision.  At the outset, this requires an analysis of intelligence—something which must logically precede any type of rigorous epistemology or Kantian critique.  As Robert Caponigri, translator of Sobre la esencia put it,

The theory of “sentient intelligence” must be distinguished from the “epistemological question” or the theory of knowledge.  The theory of intelligence is logically antecedent to the epistemological question and every epistemological theory eventually reveals that it presupposes a theory of the intelligence in its account of what and how man can know.4

  • Scientific knowledge, and especially the insight science has given us into the structure of the natural world and our ability to know that world.  Zubiri evinces a particularly keen interest in quantum mechanics and the revolution in physics which occurred in the early decades of this century.  His interest extends to all the sciences, and he believes that the cracking of the genetic code has provided insights into the biological realm which are in some ways analogous to those achieved in physics.
  • Modern logic and mathematics, especially Gˆdel’s theorem, and the new insights about mathematical truths and mathematical realities these developments have yielded.
  • Nonscientific knowledge, specifically, the need to establish a foundation for it in a comprehensive philosophical system, and recognize its great and continuing contribution to the totality of knowledge. In what sense is a novel, a poem, or a painting about reality?  Why do we say that an artist has “perceived essential truths”?   Why does an artist create his works rather than just discourse about his subject?
  • The relation of God to the physical world and to science and scientific knowledge, especially physics; dealt with at length in earlier works,6
  • The Christian theological tradition, with equal emphasis on Eastern (Greek) and Western Fathers and theologians.  Zubiri wrote extensively on this subject and related topics, including a trilogy published posthumously.8

For Zubiri, this is not merely a roundabout way, but something worse:

…it is a roundabout way which rests on an enormously problematic presupposition, namely, that the essential element of every thing is necessarily definable; and this is more than problematical.10This also becomes the basis for Zubiri’s understanding of the relationship of science and philosophy.

Secondly, he accepts that philosophy must start with its own territory, that of “mere immediate description of the act of thinking”.   But for him, the radical philosophical problem is not that proclaimed by the phenomenologists: not Husserl’s “phenomenological consciousness”, not Heidegger’s “comprehension of being”, not Ortega’s “life”, but rather the “apprehension of reality”.  He believes that philosophy must start from the fundamental fact of experience, that we are installed in reality, however modestly, and that our most basic experiences, what we perceive of the world (colors, sounds, people, etc.) are real.  Without this basis—and despite the fact that knowledge built upon it can at times be in error—there would be no other knowledge either, including science.   However, at the most fundamental level, that of direct apprehension of reality, there is no possibility of error; only knowledge built upon this foundation, involving as it does logos and reason, can be in error.  Zubiri points out that it makes sense to speak of error only because we can—and do—achieve truth.12

This conception of reality is, so to speak, a radical “paradigm shift”, because it means that there are multiple types of reality and that many of the old problems associated with reality are in fact pseudo-problems.  Zubiri notes that

The reality of a material thing is not identical with the reality of a person, the reality of society, the reality of the moral, etc.; nor is the reality of my own inner life identical to that of other realities.  But on the other hand, however different these modes of reality may be, they are always reity, i.e., formality de suyo.

Much of the work is devoted to analyzing the process of intelligence, and explaining how its three stages (primordial apprehension, logos, and reason) unfold and yield knowledge, including scientific knowledge.

Sentient Intellection not Sensible Intellection

Zubiri seeks to reestablish in a radical fashion the basis for human knowledge, as the principal step in his restructuring of philosophy.  This task goes far beyond any type of Kantian critique—something that Zubiri believes can only come after we have analyzed what human knowledge is, and how we apprehend.  For Zubiri, perception of reality begins with the sensing process, but he rejects the paradigm of classical philosophy, which starts from opposition between sensing and intelligence.  According to this paradigm, the senses deliver confused content to the intelligence, which then figures out or reconstructs reality.  The Scholastics said, nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu nisi ipse intellectus.  This is sensible intelligence, and according to Zubiri, the entire paradigm is radically false.

Zubiri’s point of departure for his rethinking of this problem is the immediacy and sense of direct contact with reality that we experience in our perception of the world; the things we perceive: colors, sounds, sights, are real in some extremely fundamental sense that cannot be overridden by subsequent reasoning or analysis.  That is, there is associated with perception an overwhelming impression of its veracity, a type of “guarantee” which accompanies it, that says to us, “What you apprehend is reality, not a cinema, not a dream.”  Implied here are two separate aspects of perception: first, what the apprehension is of, e.g. a tree or a piece of green paper, and second, its self-guaranteeing characteristic of reality.  This link to reality must be the cornerstone of any theory of the intelligence:

By virtue of its formal nature, intellection is apprehension of reality in and by itself.  This intellection…is in a radical sense an apprehension of the real which has its own characteristics….Intellection is formally direct apprehension of the real—not via representations nor images.  It is an immediate apprehension of the real, not founded in inferences, reasoning processes, or anything of that nature.  It is a unitary apprehension.  The unity of these three moments is what makes what is apprehended to be apprehended in and by itself.14  There are three moments of this actualization:

  • affection of the sentient being by what is sensed (the noetic).
  • otherness which is presentation of something other, a “note”, nota (from Latin nosco, related to Greek gignosco, “to know”, and noein, “to think”; hence the noematic)
  • force of imposition of the note upon the sentient being (the noergic).

Otherness consists of two moments, only the first of which has received any attention heretofore: content (what the apprehension is of) and formality (how it is delivered to us).  Formality may be either formality of stimulation, in the case of animals, or formality of reality, in the case of man.

The union of content and formality of reality gives rise to the process of knowing which unfolds logically if not chronologically in three modes or phases:

  • Primordial apprehension of reality (or basic, direct installation in reality, giving us pure and simple reality)
  • Logos (explanation of what something is vis ‡ vis other things, or what the real of primordial apprehension is in reality)
  • Reason (or ratio, methodological explanation of what things are and why they are, as in done in science, for example)

This process, shown schematically in Figure 1, is mediated by what Zubiri calls the ‘field’ of reality.  The reality field concept is loosely based on the field concept from physics, such as the gravitational field, where a body exists “by itself”, so to speak; but also by virtue of its existence, creates a field around itself through which it interacts with other bodies.  Thus in the field of reality, a thing has an individual moment and a field moment. The individual moment Zubiri refers to as the thing existing “by itself” or “of itself”; de suyo is the technical term he employs. The “field moment” is called as such and implies that things cannot be fully understood in isolation.  This is in stark contrast to the notion of essence in classical philosophy.

Roughly speaking, primordial apprehension installs us in reality and delivers things to us in their individual and field moments; logos deals with things in the field, how they relate to each other; and reason tells us what they are in the sense of methodological explanation. A simple example may serve to illustrate the basic ideas. A piece of green paper is perceived.  It is apprehended as something real in primordial apprehension; both the paper and the greenness are apprehended as real, in accordance with our normal beliefs about what we apprehend. (This point about the reality of the color green is extremely important, because Zubiri believes that the implicit denial of the reality of, say, colors, and the systematic ignoring of them by modern science is a great scandal.) 

 src=/sites/default/files/old_site/images/10466_Fig-1.gif><br>Figure 1<br>Sentient Intelligence in Zubiri’s Philosophy</p><p>As yet, however, we may not know how to name the color, for example, or what the material is, or what to call its shape.  That task is the function of the logos, which relates what has been apprehended to other things known and named from previous experience; for example, other colors or shades of colors associated with greenness.  Likewise, with respect to the material in which the green inheres, we would associate it with paper, wood, or other things known from previous experience.  In turn, reason via science explains the green as electromagnetic energy of a certain wavelength, or photons of a certain energy in accordance with Einstein’s relation <em>E=h</em><em>n</em>.   That is, the color green <em>is the photons as sensed</em>; there are not two realities.  The characteristics of the three phases may be explained as follows:</p><ul><li>Primordial apprehension of reality is the basic, direct installation in reality, giving us pure and simple reality.  This is what one gets first, and is the basis on which all subsequent understanding is based.  Perhaps it can most be easily understood if one thinks of a baby, which has <em>only</em> this apprehension: the baby perceives the real world around it, but as a congeries of sounds, colors, etc., which are <em>real</em>, but as yet undifferentiated into chairs, walls, spoken words, etc. It is richest with respect to the real, poorest with respect to specific determination (ulterior modes augment determination, but diminish richness).  In it, reality is not exhausted with respect to its content, but given in an unspecific ambient transcending the content.  This transcendence is strictly sensed, not inferred, even for the baby.  Primordial apprehension is the basis for the ulterior or logically subsequent modes. <br> </li><li>Logos (explanation of what something is <em>vis ‡ vis</em> other things, or as Zubiri expresses it, what the real of primordial apprehension is <em>in reality</em>).  This is the second step: differentiate things, give them names, and understand them in relation to each other.  As a baby gets older, this is what he does: he learns to make out things in his environment, and he learns what their names are, eventually learning to speak and communicate with others verbally.  This stage involves a “stepping back” from direct contact with reality in primordial apprehension in order to organize it.  The logos is what enables us to know what a thing, apprehended as real in sentient intellection, is <em>in reality </em>(a technical term, meaning what something is in relation to one’s other knowledge).  It utilizes the notion of the “field of reality”.  The reality field is a concept loosely based on field concept of physics: a body exists “by itself” but by virtue of its existence, creates field around itself through which it interacts with other bodies.<br> </li><li>Reason (or <em>ratio</em>, methodological explanation of what things are and why they are, as is done in science, for example).  This is the highest level of understanding; it encompasses <em>all</em> of our ways of understanding our environment.  One naturally thinks of science, of course; but long before science as we know it existed, people sought explanations of things.  And they found them in myths, legends, plays, poetry, art, and music—which are indeed examples of reason in the most general sense: they all seek to tell us something about reality.  Later, of course, came philosophy and science; but no single way of access to reality, in this sense, is exhaustive: all have a role.  Reason, for Zubiri, does not consist in going to reality, but in going from field reality toward worldly reality, toward field reality in depth.  If one likes, the field is the system of the sensed real, and the world, the object of reason, is the system of the real as a form of reality.  That is, the whole world of the rationally intellectively known is the unique and true explanation of field reality.</li></ul><p>In Zubiri’s word’s, reason is “measuring intellection of the real in depth”.<sup class=ftn><a title=15  There are two moments of reason to be distinguished (1) intellection in depth, e.g., electromagnetic theory is intellection in depth of color;
Figure 2.  Three levels of sentient intelligence

This means that Zubiri has, in an even more radical way than Kant, made his own “Copernican Revolution”, because in Zubiri’s thought, the traditional grounding of knowing has been turned upside down.  Our fundamental source of knowledge about the world is our direct contact with it, not the highest level of our intelligence.  This is illustrated in Figure 3.

 src=/sites/default/files/old_site/images/10466_Fig-3.gif><br>Figure 3.  Zubiri’s “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy</p><p><strong>Reality</strong></p><p>Given Zubiri’s radically new approach to philosophy, and his analysis of intelligence as sentient, it is not surprising that his concept of reality is quite different from that of previous philosophy as well.  As mentioned above, he rejects the idea of reality as a “zone of things”, usually conceived as “out there” beyond the mind, and replaces it with a more general notion, that of formality.  “Reality is formality”, he says over and over, and by this he means that reality is the <em>de suyo</em>, the “in its own right”; it is not the content of some impression.  Anything which is “in its own right” is real.  This <em>de suyo</em>, the formality of reality, is how the content is delivered to us.  Our brains—Zubiri refers to them as organs of formalization—are wired to perceive reality, to perceive directly the “in its own right” character.  It does <em>not</em> emerge as the result of some reasoning process working on the <em>content</em>; it is delivered <em>together with the content</em> in primordial apprehension.  </p><p>This includes reality in apprehension, as well as reality beyond apprehension.  But always, the character of reality is the same: <em>de suyo</em>.  It is therefore something <em>physical</em> as opposed to something conceptual.  And this is true whether one is speaking of things perceived at the level of primordial apprehension, such as colors, or things perceived in ulterior modes of apprehension such as reason, where examples might be historical realities such as the Ottoman Empire, or mathematical objects such as circles and lines: both are <em>real</em> in the same sense, though they differ in other respects (mathematical objects are real by postulation, whereas historical entities are not).  Moreover, reality is independent of the subject, not a subjective projection, but something <em>imposed </em>upon the subject, something which is <em>here-and-now</em> before the subject.  Logos and reason do not have to go to reality or create it; they are born in it and remain in it. </p><p>When a thing is known sentiently, at the same time it is known to be a reality. The impression of reality puts us in contact with reality, but not with <em>all</em> reality.  Rather, it leaves us open to all reality.  This is <em>openness</em> to the world.  All things have a unity with respect to each other which is what constitutes the <em>world.</em>  Zubiri believes that reality is fundamentally open, and therefore not capturable in any human formula.  This openness is intimately related to transcendentality:</p><blockquote>...reality as reality is constitutively open, is transcendentally open.  By virtue of this openness, reality is a formality in accordance with which nothing is real except as open to other realities and even to the reality of itself.  That is, every reality is constitutively respective <em>qua</em> reality. <sup class=ftn><a title=17

Reality must not be considered as some transcendental concept, or even as a concept which is somehow realized in all real things:

…rather, it is a real and physical moment, i.e., transcendentality is just the openness of the real qua real….The world is open not only because we do not know what things there are or can be in it; it is open above all because no thing, however precise and detailed its constitution, is reality itself as such.
Figure 4.  Reality in impression and reality beyond impression

That was the measure of reality: progress beyond the field was brought about by thinking that reality as measuring is “thing”.  An intellection much more difficult than that of quantum physics was needed in order to understand that the real can be real and still not be a thing.  Such, for example, is the case of person.  Then not only was the field of real things broadened, but that which we might term ‘the modes of reality’ were also broadened.  Being a thing is only one of those modes; being a person is another.20

The two aspects of truth for Zubiri are shown in Figure 5.

Now truth and reality are not identical in Zubiri’s philosophy, because there are many realities which are not actualized in sentient intellection, nor do they have any reason to be so.  Thus not every reality is true in this sense.  Though it does not add any notes, actualization does add truth to the real.  Hence truth and reality are different; nor are they mere correlates, because reality is not simply the correlate of truth but its foundation on account of the fact that “all actualization is actualization of reality.”
Figure 5.  Real truth and dual truth in Zubiri’s philosophy

Knowledge and Understanding

Zubiri believes that one of the principal errors of past philosophers was their excessively static view of knowledge—a conquer it “once and for all” approach.  Typical of this mentality are the repeated attempts to devise a definitive list of “categories”, such as those of Aristotle and Kant, and Kant’s integration of Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry into the fabric of his philosophy.  Rather, knowledge as a human enterprise is both dynamic and limited.  It is limited because the canon of reality, like reality itself, can never be completely fathomed.  It is limited because as human beings we are limited and must constantly search for knowledge.  The phrase “exhaustive knowledge” is an oxymoron:

The limitation of knowledge is certainly real, but this limitation is something derived from the intrinsic and formal nature of rational intellection, from knowing as such, since it is inquiring intellection.  Only because rational intellection is formally inquiring, only because of this must one always seek more and, finding what was sought, have it become the principle of the next search. Knowledge is limited by being knowledge.  An exhaustive knowledge of the real would not be knowledge; it would be intellection of the real without necessity of knowledge.  Knowledge is only intellection in search.  Not having recognized the intrinsic and formal character of rational intellection as inquiry is what led to…subsuming all truth under the truth of affirmation.23

Understanding, then, requires sentient intellection and cannot exist, even for subjects such as mathematics, without it.  This insight reveals clearly Zubiri’s radical departure from all previous thought.

Zubiri and Science

The scientific and the metaphysical are closely connected, because both are forms of knowledge emerging from the reason or third mode of human intellection.  Articulating the relationship between them has been a difficult problem for at least three centuries of Western philosophy.  For Zubiri, the relationship is as follows: reality unfolds in events observed by the sciences, which indeed allow us to observe aspects of it which would otherwise remain hidden.  But this unfolding of reality is no different from its unfolding through personal experience, poetry, music, or religious experience.  All human knowing is of the real, because reality is the formality under which man apprehends anything. In man’s quest for understanding, the utilization of scientific concepts, amplified and interpreted, only supposes that the sciences are an appropriate way of access to reality.  Philosophy, in turn, reflects on the data offered by the sciences as “data of reality”.  But philosophy is not looking to duplicate the efforts of science.  Both philosophy and science examine the “world”, that to which the field of reality directs us.  But science is concerned with what Zubiri terms the “talitative” order, the “such-and-suchness” of the world, how such-and-such thing behaves; whereas philosophy is concerned with the respective unity of the real qua real, with its transcendental character, what makes it real.25

For Zubiri, there are three serious problems with any positivistic approach such as this: (1) The meaning of statements cannot be identified with their method of verification, because this represents a hopeless confusion of the three levels of human intelligence.  Verification methods involve concepts of reason, whereas the meaning of statements arises at the level of logos, coupled of course with primordial apprehension of reality.27

So the idea of being able to capture it in a complete way, or to say all that can be said about it utilizing rational knowledge such as science, is doomed from the start.  There will always be knowledge about the world which cannot be subsumed under science (or any other form of rational knowledge), or captured in any human formula.  Zubiri notes that art, literature, and music are other examples of rational knowledge that tell us about the world—tell us different things about it than science does.  Hence, the fundamental or constitutive openness of reality means that the search for it is a never-ending quest; he believes that the development of quantum mechanics in the twentieth century has been an example of how our concept of reality has broadened. 

God and Theology

Theology in the Western tradition is generally regarded as a rational enterprise, much like science, and as such often starts with demonstrations of the existence of God, such as the so-called “cosmological proof.”  For Zubiri, this approach is wrong for reasons that are analogous to those he adduces with respect to knowledge in general.  Zubiri believes that any attempt to base theology on complex rational arguments, such as the proofs of the existence of God by Aquinas or Scotus, fails because it makes too many controversial philosophical assumptions at the outset, as do attempts to ground human knowledge in general on theories at the level of reason.  Rather, one must start from something much more modest, namely something in our personal experience.  For Zubiri, this is our experience of the power of the real. Reality imposes itself on us in an especially forceful tripartite way, as ultimate, possibility-making, and impelling. Our experience of this imposition, our experience of the power of the real, is our experience of the ground of reality.29

For Zubiri this first step, somewhat analogous to primordial apprehension, is thus the recognition that each person is, in his very constitution, turned toward a reality which is more than he is, and on which he is based.  This reality is that from which emerge the resources he needs to make his personality, and which supplies him with the force necessary to carry out this process of realizing himself.  Such turning of a person to reality is religation.  It is a turning toward some ground not found among things immediately given, something which must be sought beyond what is given.  This gives rise in the first place to the notion of “Deity”.  Later, the theist will call this ground ‘God’.  With respect to religions, nearly all offer a vision or explanation of this ground, and therefore there is some truth in all.

It is only when this fundamental ground of religious faith and knowledge has been recognized that construction of any sort of “rational” theology makes sense.  While scientific and theological knowledge are both knowledge at the level of reason, for Zubiri, they are different in their object, structure, and method of verification.  Both seek to tell us about reality, though not necessarily the same reality.  By analyzing these difference, we can gain some insight into the reasons for potential conflicts, and how to resolve them.

Scientific knowledge is based on postulation, and is subject to verification using methods appropriate to postulation.31

In Zubiri’s view, we are religated to reality, because reality imposes itself on us in an especially forceful tripartite way, as ultimate, possibility-making, and impelling:

The experience of this imposition, of this power of the real which is a fact, is…the experience of the ground of reality, the fundamental experience which each man possesses as a theist, an agnostic or an atheist. The divergences begin at the time of intellectual discernment and volition when confronting this fundament. For the theist, the experience of the fundament is an experience of God, a God which is not transcendent “to” things, but transcendent “in” things. To reach God it is not necessary to leave the world, but to enter more into it, reaching its foundation or ground. God is at the bottom of things as their ground; and in his experience of things man has the fundamental experience of God. The life of man is woven into his experience with and of things; and as this experience is in itself an experience of God, it turns out that the life of each man is in some way a continuous experience of God. This means that the real God of each person is not a concept or the result of reasoning, but the very life of man.
Figure 6.  Comparison of Theology and Noology in Zubiri’s Philosophy

In theology, we utilize this direct experience, and also reported direct experience, as in sacred texts such as the Bible.  So for example, key theological information comes from reports of experiences such as those of Moses on Mt. Sinai.  On the basis of direct and reported experiences, inferences are drawn, and large-scale theological structures erected.  Such inferences often—indeed usually—go beyond direct experience, and refer to things in the world, what Zubiri terms “reality beyond apprehension”.  These inferences will inevitably be influenced by the general state of knowledge at the time, and by the world in which the theologian lives and with which he is familiar.  Often the inferences are directed at explanation of “origins”—how the world came to be, how man came to be, and why he is as he is.  Thus the geocentric theory of the universe, based on a set of observations, was used in conjunction with certain Biblical verses to construct a vision of the heavens.  Conflict can therefore arise when new knowledge of the world is inconsistent with earlier knowledge, rendering the inferences and vision untenable.  The problem, therefore, is to keep the core beliefs and exercise great care with inferences.  Inferences easily turn into extrapolations, and extrapolations lead to problems because they are often unverifiable and far removed from the original source of the knowledge.  As mentioned previously, science and theology both seek knowledge of reality beyond apprehension, but not necessarily the same reality.  For example, science does not look for God to appear in some experiment; by the same token, theology does not seek to discover new subatomic particles.  But extrapolation can lead to much blurring and overlap.

This focuses attention directly on a key difference between theological and scientific knowledge, their respective methods of verification.  Verification is “clearly encountering or finding something which one is already seeking.”34

The originality and vigor of Zubiri’s approach can be gauged by comparing it to “classical” theology, as shown in Table 1. 

 src=/sites/default/files/old_site/images/10466_Fig-7.gif><br>Table 1. Comparison of Systematic Theology based on St. Thomas and on Zubiri</p><p><strong>Human Reality</strong></p><p>For centuries it was believed that what is real “beyond” impression comprises “material bodies”, envisaged as made up of some sort of billiard-ball type particles.  The development of quantum mechanics forced a change in this picture, though not without considerable controversy.  A much more difficult effort was required to recognize that something can be real and yet not be a thing, viz. the human person.  The human person is a fundamentally different <em>kind</em> of reality, one whose essence is <em>open</em>, as opposed to the closed essences of animals and other living things.  An open essence is defined not by the notes that it naturally has, but by its system of possibilities; and hence it makes itself, so to speak, with the possibilities.  “Its-own-ness” is what makes an essence to be open.  This open essence of man is the ground of his freedom, in turn the ground of his moral nature.  Zubiri terms the set of notes defining the essence of what it means to be a person <em>personeity</em>, and <em>personality </em>the realization of these notes by means of actions.  A person, for Zubiri, is a <em>relative absolute</em>: “relative” because his actions are not entirely unconstrained, but are what make him the kind of person that he is; “absolute” because he enjoys the ability to make himself, i.e., he has freedom and is not an automaton, fully deterministic.</p><p>As a consequence, man’s role in the universe is different; and between persons (and only between them) there is a strict causality, which in turn implies a moral obligation.  This causality is not a simple application of classical notions of causality to persons, but something irreducible to the causality of classical metaphysics, and still less reducible to the concept of a scientific law.  This is what Zubiri refers to as <em>personal causality</em>:  “And however repugnant it may be to natural science, there is...a causality between persons which is not given in the realm of nature.”  The key characteristic of this type of causality is that we can know it in ways that we cannot know about other aspects of reality.  Indeed, personal causality—and our knowledge of it—is the ultimate basis for morality.</p><p><strong>Concluding remarks</strong></p><p>Zubiri’s philosophy is a boldly conceived and superbly executed rethinking and recasting of the great philosophical questions, unique in many extremely significant respects.  It represents a new conception of philosophy as well as a new way of viewing and absorbing the history of philosophy.  At the same time, it presents satisfying answers to the great philosophical questions, and reveals how many of the problems of the past were in fact pseudo-problems arising from deep-seated misunderstandings, especially of the nature of human intellection as sentient.</p><br><hr><p align=center><strong>Endnotes</strong></p><div><div id=edn1><p><a title=1  A. Pintor Ramos, Zubiri, Madrid: Ediciones del Orto, 1996, p. 18.

3  Xavier Zubiri, On Essence, translated by A. R. Caponigri, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1980, p. 1.

5  Naturaleza, Historia, Dios, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, ninth edition, 1987; English edition, 1981.

7First volumen: Xavier Zubiri, El hombre y Dios, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1984.  English translation to be published in 2008 by University Press of America.  Second volume: Xavier Zubiri, El problema filosÛfico de la historia de las religiones, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/FundaciÛn Xavier Zubiri, 1993.  Third volume: Xavier Zubiri, El problema teologal del hombre: Cristianismo, 1997.

9  Ibid.

11 Xavier Zubiri, Sentient Intelligence, tr. by Thomas Fowler, Washington, DC: Xavier Zubiri Foundation of North America, 1999, p. 83ff (hereafter, SI).

13 SI, p. 94.

15 SI, p. 257.

17 SI, p. 248.

19 SI, p. 261.

21 SI, p. 193.

23 SI, p. 363.

25 Zubiri, Naturaleza, Historia, Dios, op. cit., p. 17.

27Xavier Zubiri, Inteligencia y razÛn, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1980, p. 20; English translation, Sentient Intelligence, tr. by Thomas B. Fowler, Washington: Xavier Zubiri Foundation of North America, 1999, p. 248.

29 From the Translator’s Introduction to Man and God, translated by Joaquin Redondo, Thomas Fowler, and Nelson Orringer, forthcoming by University Press of America.

31 Xavier Zubiri, Man and God, back cover summary

33 SI, p. 336.


Spinoza’s metaphysics is thus constituted by a tension between multiplicity and unity. On the one hand the infinite diversity of modes is defined essentially through their particular ways of “striving to be,” or conatus. On the other hand the unity of substance, that is, God or Nature, implies a single universal cosmos ultimately indivisible into dualist terms such as God and world, subject and object, or mind and matter. The tension between modal diversity and substantial unity is resolved through the essential relationality of the modes themselves. All finite beings are, for Spinoza, inherently beings-in-relation, and the causal and affective interactions among them constitute a systematic unity, a single ordo & connexio (“order and connection”) of things and ideas.3 One element shared by these various interdisciplinary studies is an emphasis on the relational and affective character of Spinoza’s metaphysics. Spinoza’s philosophy shows how relationality and in particular the human capacity for language provides a model of human personhood in which subjectivity and identity exist only through mutually affective relations with the world and with others. As we rethink the conceptions of personhood bequeathed to us by modern philosophy in light of issues that have arisen and returned in multiple disciplines calling the sense of modernity itself into question, Spinoza’s Ethics offers a powerful way to conceive of the need for and the establishment of interdisciplinary projects.

After first developing in more detail the ideas of personhood and language implied by Spinoza’s naturalism, we will turn to two specific cases in which the Spinozist model enables constructive interdisciplinary possibilities: first, linking philosophy with evolutionary biology; and second, engaging cooperation between contemporary philosophical and religious traditions.

Spinoza’s affective-relational model of personhood and language

What is the status of persons in the world described by Spinoza’s Ethics? We have seen that Spinoza’s philosophy understands human beings as integral parts of an all-encompassing nature. For Spinoza persons, like all finite modes, are relational parts of nature which are individuated and understandable only in terms of the ways they affect and are affected by other beings. This doctrine of the affects is one of the most characteristic features of Spinoza’s thought.5

This affective-relational model of language is not merely a theoretical element of the Ethics; it is equally a function of the textual-linguistic performance that the Ethics itself is. It is important to note that Spinoza’s Ethics is unique not only in what it says but equally in how its ideas are expressed and communicated. The “geometrical method,” or order of presentation in Spinoza’s text – based on the axiomatic-deductive structure of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry – provides a model of thinking that combines formal and logical relationships with a unique interplay of meaning and program. The “argument” of the Ethics proceeds not by strategies of persuasion but through the construction of new relations among already established results according to the rules given by initial definitions and axioms. It is not the terms of the Ethics that matter, but the ways they relate in ordered structures. Patterns of conceptual interrelation are more essential than any particular, isolated ideas. Entailed by the geometrical method is a distinct philosophical practice with respect to language. Meaning becomes subordinated to use, as semantic terms are replaced by systematic and practical relations. Because of the very form of Spinoza’s argument, the representational function of language is de-emphasized in favor of its practical, relational and affective aspects.

Understood in this way, language is composed of both chaotic processes and formal procedures. It is, like Spinoza’s Ethics itself, a complex hybrid of immediate affective passions and rational forms. Just as Spinoza’s text communicates explicitly both at the rhetorical level of natural language and at the purely formal level of axiomatic-deductive structure, language itself must be conceived in the untellable complexity of its combinations and historical changes as coordinating singular affective events and formal procedures traced in common. At the affective level, language is always immersed in concrete social, cultural and historical contexts – the surprises and vicissitudes of natural human experience. On the formal side, language is distinguished by its being capable of reflexive self-correction and thus productive of rationally approximative habits. In this way, the progressive character of modern scientific knowledge is, at a profound level, one expression of the potential inherent in the essence of language itself. Such a coordination of science and signification is confirmed by the theories of 20th century semiotics and philosophy of science.7 The “emancipation” story of modernity – the dominant narrative since the Enlightenment, according to Latour’s analysis – appeals to the human desire to be absolved from all relation, to seek freedom as abstract independence and personal sovereignty. This narrative tends to view science and technology as ways to master nature and to separate individuals away from the necessities of social cooperation and interdependence. In contrast to this narrative of emancipation, an “entanglement” narrative of modernity would emphasize the relations, connections and interdependencies that scientific and technological development produce. Where the “emancipatory” narrative preaches absolution, the “entanglement” narrative portrays us as “constantly [moving] from a superficial to a deeper interpretation of what it is to be entangled.”9 One is free to the extent that one is able to affect and be affected by the rest of nature in multiple, complex ways. Wisdom is neither theoretical knowledge nor disinterested contemplation, but rather the capacity to “do more things.” Such an idea of thought’s freedom as based in concrete relations entails renovations in the discipline of philosophy itself. In accordance with a relational model of personhood and an entanglement model of social and scientific development, philosophy’s own methods and practices need to be coordinated in active relations with other disciplines and traditions. Rather than standing absolute from the disciplines of science and the traditions of religion in a role of critic or judge, for instance, philosophy must risk the establishment of relations that would entangle it with these disciplines themselves. We will now turn to the two examples mentioned earlier of such potential relevance of Spinoza’s ideas to relations among philosophy, science and religion in an attempt to demonstrate how the relational model might encourage productive interdisciplinary and intertraditional entanglement.

Entangling philosophy and evolutionary biology

Our first case concerns the potential and actual relations between philosophy and evolutionary biology. It is clear that interest in these relations has arisen in both disciplines. On the one hand, evolutionary biologists such as Stuart Kauffman have come to see that scientific methods as applied to organisms and ecosystems must take into account the action of signification since the emergence of semiotic processes in nature is essential to the very origins and maintenance of life itself.11 So both Kauffman and Dennett agree that philosophy and biology must confer in addressing evolutionary processes, yet any possible relations between biology and philosophy would require ways of linking strictly scientific research with philosophical reflections on method, meaning and conceptualization as they themselves have developed as human, linguistically-mediated processes in nature and history. How can evolutionary science and philosophy become constructively entangled?

While the study of human culture and development from the standpoint of evolutionary biology necessarily emphasizes the rootedness of social and intellectual processes in the natural exigencies of survival and reproduction, philosophy since the Enlightenment has usually understood itself – as in Latour’s “emancipation” model – in terms of an uprooting of human minds from the pregiven limits of tradition and nature. Thus the worry of philosophers who resist bio-evolutionary “contamination” is that conceiving of human reason in general and of philosophy in particular as products of evolution would reduce the freedom of human thought to the causal determinations of “merely” natural processes. Yet this reduction of human rational and cultural phenomena to biological processes of reproduction and selection would appear as a stale and sterile necessitarianism only if evolution is equated solely with competition and selection. If, in contrast, structures of emergent order are in fact intrinsic to evolutionary processes, as the research of Kauffman and others would suggest, then “reducing” human thought to evolution may be no reduction at all but rather a realization of thought’s natural productivity, increase and potentialization. Certainly, this naturalist conception of human thought would be by no means foreign to the way of thinking expressed in Spinoza’s Ethics.

In addition, the relational focus of Spinoza’s Ethics is singularly situated within modern Western intellectual culture to provide both theoretical and practical frameworks for conceiving the interplay of natural and cultural processes in human contexts on the one hand and at the same time to serve as an actual key instance in the history of philosophy itself – with its varied semiotic processes and practical reinterpretations of tradition – of the early modern cultural, political, scientific and historical transitions whose consequences we inherit. Thus Spinoza’s philosophy may become a kind of test-case for understanding early modern forms of thought both as evolutionary products and as mappings of ways of life with continued evolutionary potential.

Such encounters between philosophy and evolutionary science may very well entail transformations in the notion of evolutionary biology as a science. Naturalist philosophical reflection is able to show that one only studies evolutionary biology to the extent that one participates in its very movement. While this insight may be especially needed in evolutionary biology and its offshoots such as human sociobiology, it should be clear that Spinoza’s trenchant naturalism with respect to human beings and all of our endeavors would imply a corresponding methodological shift in all the natural sciences, a deepening of what at least in physics has been well-known at least since Heisenberg: measurement and observation inescapably affect what is measured and observed. Hence it becomes apparent that scientific knowledge is, ineluctably, a form of affective relation.

In a parallel way, philosophy must risk its own transformations as it develops new relationships to the natural sciences. In constructive interaction with evolutionary biology, for instance, philosophy must learn to reflect more rigorously on the natural and social-historical contexts within which its methods and practices have arisen and must in addition address itself more thoughtfully to the specific needs and capacities of its interlocutors. One example here might be the important research being done around the themes of visual information processing and diagrammatic reasoning.13 When the ideas and goals of classical philosophy were revived especially in the Neoplatonic renaissance of 15th and 16th century Europe, the practical emphasis on worldly virtue was a core part of philosophy’s particular appeal. It was only with the later spread of merely academic philosophy that the ideal of philosophy as a practical form of life was lost. This process had begun already in the 17th century as Cartesianism contended with Scholasticism in the universities, but it reached its fulfillment with the rise of the “university professor” model of philosophy in 19th century Germany and elsewhere. Today, despite the immense variety of Western philosophical schools and traditions not only throughout Europe and America but worldwide, very little serious work is considered philosophy that does not take place primarily or solely through a theoretically oriented understanding of philosophy organized by printed media, lectures, conferences and so on – that is to say philosophy as talk, not as deed and certainly not as spiritual virtue.

Despite the nearly total disappearance of practical disciplines from the various Western philosophical traditions, however, such practices still remain essential elements of religions, both in personal and collective ritual. In today’s world no one could seriously argue that religious traditions have little measurable effect on human lives and communities, as one might quite rightly claim about contemporary philosophy. In the development of communicative relations across philosophical and religious traditions the effects of such ritual practices may perhaps become manifest in philosophy once again. First of all, remaining in a purely academic context, the discipline of religious studies with its sophisticated tools for the analysis and description of collective ritual and spiritual practice may take Western philosophy – especially ancient and early Renaissance philosophy – as an object of study. In this way, an understanding of the philosophical tradition in its history and in the transformations of its methods and practices may be pursued especially productively from the perspective of religious studies.15 It is possible that such practices find or create analogues within the philosophical traditions. Yet more importantly, new collaborative practices between philosophy and religion are likely to emerge from such encounters, creating new complex relational potential.

The practical consequences of such a model appear as follows: On the one hand, communicative and collaborative practices, rather than a representational, comparativist model, become the primary mode of scholarly relation between philosophy and religions. This applies especially to the conception of intertraditional dialogue. We aim then at a different set of purposes by pursuing a different set of questions. No longer do we ask: What can philosophy and religion agree on? or What do they disagree about? We ask instead: What can philosophical and religious dialogue do or construct together? and What affective relations can religious and philosophical traditions form? According to the intrinsically relational notion of identity developed in Spinoza’s Ethics, the formation of such new relations would necessarily imply the mutual transformations of philosophical and religious traditions themselves. The risk of self-transformation is a risk philosophy must take if it is to remain a relevant factor for the events and decisions of today’s world. Philosophy must find ways to communicate with and learn from religions. In this attempt, it is worth noting that Spinozist philosophy, because of its affective basis and unique discursive form, offers itself as one philosophical tradition that readily communicates and interacts with other diverse forms of thought and practice.


If, as Latour suggests, a theoretical shift away from the emancipatory narrative of modernity towards a relation-based entanglement model offers hope for breaking contemporary deadlocks of global ethical and political action, then Spinoza’s Ethics may help to construct the needed interdisciplinary and inter-traditional entanglements of our time. If we ourselves, our institutions, our academic disciplines and our cultural and religious traditions are not merely accidentally but essentially relational, as Spinoza’s philosophy maintains, then it becomes imperative to find ways of encouraging strong and flexibly adaptive relations among the best elements of the world’s manifold human traditions: philosophical, religious, scientific, artistic. Within these traditions, we must seek out instances of thought, expression and action that, like Spinoza’s Ethics itself, contain an internal impetus towards constructive relationality.

We have seen how the relational model of personhood and the affective-practical conception of language in Spinoza entail new practices of interdisciplinary relation between philosophy and the natural sciences on the one hand and between philosophy and religious traditions on the other. In both cases, the new object of relational study and the aims of interdisciplinary research must themselves be practiced as collaborative and experimental methods. In this way our very understanding of study and theorization becomes transformed. New forms of interdisciplinary study necessitate new methods – ones of participation, not detached objectification. Spinoza’s Ethics offers ways to conceive and to implement such interdisciplinary possibilities, particularly through integrating a relational conception of personhood with an entanglement model of collectivities, traditions and forms of discourse. The concept of relational personhood thus opens out onto a more general framework for rethinking the constructive relationality of social groups, academic disciplines and interdependent ways of life.

The real has traditionally been defined in philosophy as what exists independently of human thought and experience. If we take Spinoza’s Ethics seriously, we must revise this definition. When affectivity and relationality are essential characteristics of all natural being, what is real must be conceived in general on the basis of affective relations and their productive powers, not on some supposed independence from such relations. The real – as eminently relational – becomes that which cannot be disentangled from the collectively active work of “giving shape” to the world that is perhaps best translated by the broad semantic field of the German word Bildung. As in the narrative of a 19th century Bildungsroman, the greater and more complex the relationality developed within a history or a system, the more reality that system or history expresses. Or, to risk a further act of translation, we might identify the real in this revised sense with an ancient and non-psychological idea of psyche, soul understood here not merely in terms of the individuated forms of particular living beings but rather as the ceaseless bringing-into-relation of life itself: the networks of anarchic encounter and emergent pattern from which nature endlessly constructs its zones of counter-entropy, complexity and increase – its ecosystems, evolutes, valuations, societies and futurities.




2 This is the basis for Spinoza’s collapsing of the distinction between ideas and things as merely two different expressions of the identical “order and connection” of modes under the two attributes of thought and extension. See Ethics IIp7.

4 See the discussions in Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, trans. Martin Joughin, (NY: Zone 1992) and Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights 1988).

6 See the comprehensive semiotic interpretation of the history of Western philosophy in John Deely, Four Ages of Understanding: The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (Toronto: University of Toronto 2001).

8 Latour, “How to Modernize Modernization,” p. 7.

10 Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (NY: Oxford 1995) and Investigations (NY: Oxford 2000).

12 See the collections by Janice Glasgow, N. Hari Narayanan and B. Chandrasekaran, eds., Diagrammatic Reasoning: Cognitive and Computational Perspectives (NY: AAAI Press 1995) and Gerard Allwein and Jon Barwise, eds., Logical Reasoning with Diagrams (NY: Oxford University Press 1996).

14 This line of thought has been pursued in collaboration with Jason Smick (Santa Clara University) and Thomas Higgins (California State University Fresno) over the course of the past half dozen years in the work of our philosophical organization Synousia.

1 Thus, in a materialistic view, the millennia-old dilemma has been settled: external consciousness simply does not exist – a fruit of religious imagination, it should remain where it belongs – within the domains of theology or religious apologetics, and no roundabouts or insinuations as to sacred revelations within the academic discourse are welcomed any longer.

Yet, however paradoxically, with the rise of scientific materialism, the romantic longings for some sort of mysticism and transcendence among secular academics did not cease but inspired instead an alternative conceptualization of the so-called “humanistic” or “non-theistic” spirituality that undercuts the assumption in the belief in the supernatural as the only condition for a spiritual orientation. “Spiritual-humanistic tradition” suggested by Marx and developed by Fromm; the “new mystique” elaborated by Julian Huxley, “spirituality without God” advocated by MÛller de la RouviËre – these holistic, non-binary paradigms of human condition claimed to have deconstructed substance dualism and elaborated a new model of the undivided, non-metaphysical spirituality. Under the umbrella of this humanistic spirituality one may discuss spiritual phenomena in romantic, aesthetic, poetic or ethical terms or within the discourse of palliative healing, but to suggest that the eternal soul actually does exist – in whichever form, – and to imagine that it survives physical body – in whatever fashion – would be naive and retrograde and would not be worthy of serious academic exploration. Obviously, these humanistic conceptualizations of spirituality may be regarded as valid and legitimate ways to account for human condition in their own terms; however, under an honest critical consideration, they appear to be nothing more than “spiritualistically embellished” philosophical offsprings of mechanistic materialism, failing to accomplish the ambitious task of the transcendence of mind-body conceptual dichotomies. There is no such a thing as a transcendental aspect to human existence compliable with this spiritualistically-disguised materialistic worldview; nothing like that of a soul in the absolutist, Platonic, Hegelian, or Christian sense – this is the verdict that scientific materialism has passed.

Materialistic hegemony over human consciousness further shapes a broader secular public discourse on the nature of human self, which habitually refers to the laboratory-based scientific authority as an ultimate tribune in human affairs. Par example, while contemplating on the matters of brain-mind dualism, the Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach – a recognized popular science journalist – logically concludes that if a mind (in contrast to brain) cannot be empirically tested, then it virtually does not exist at all:

The classic idea of “dualism” solves the location problem by defining it away: the mind is perceived as separate from the body, something that cannot be reduced to machinery. It is unreachable by the tools of the laboratory. Dualism flatters us, for it suggests that our minds, our selves, are not merely the result of rambunctious chemistry, and we are thus free to talk about souls and spirits and essences that are unfettered by the physical body. Dualism is pretty much dead to serious researchers … but here’s the most radical idea of all: the reason why the mind is so hard to define is not because it has some mysterious, ethereal, spooky qualities but because it does not really exist. We just imagine it. You might say it is all in our heads.3

The above excerpt appears as a classic example for the Foucauldian critique of hegemonic discourse-formation, whereby power-knowledge5 Par example, near-death experiences are now officially “real phenomena,” which emerge as the result of the suppression of activity in the superior parietal lobe. Apparently, the orientation association area (OAA) in the superior parietal lobe is responsible for our physical spatial orientation, the control of bodily motions, and the consistent awareness of the physical limits of the self – basically, neuroscientists believe that OAA is precisely what creates a coherent sense of self in humans. So, when the sense of orientation is suppressed in the near-death experience – neurotheologians explain – “self” no longer feels anchored to the body… and one often seems to be rising to “heaven…”7 As for the sense of full awareness of the surroundings in brain-dead patients, the materialistic explanation of this mystery would be that “these phenomena can occur with very minute amounts of electrical activity in the brain.”9 Hence, here is a delusional God-experience – a schizophrenic misperception of one’s own self as a separate presence. Neuroscientists Newberg and d’Aquili argue that all neurological phenomena of deafferentiation – that is, feelings of unity with the universe, a sense of being absorbed into divinity, and other modes of self-transcendence, such as sensations of “infinite sublimity,” “the sense of timelessness and spacelessness in prayer and meditation,” “communion with the universe,” “hyperlucid unitary consciousness,” “the dissolving of boundaries between the self and God, gods, universe,” “being consumed by the presence of God, Jesus, Mary, or any other religious agency,” etcetera – emerge as a result of the suppression of the OAA during meditation:

Would the orientation area interpret its failure to find the borderline between the self and the outside world to mean that such a distinction doesn’t exist? In that case the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses. And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real.”11 writing from personal experience with drugs in search for self-transcendence, pronounces the direct relationship between chemical influence of psychedelic drugs on the brain and having a mystical experience; Daniel A. Helminiak in Neurology, Psychology, and Extraordinary Religious Experiences13 argues that spirituality is a “nature’s white lie, a coping mechanism selected into our species to help alleviate debilitating anxiety caused by our unique awareness of death.”15 So far more than nine hundred people have already had an “instant God experience” with the help of Persinger’s helmet and reportedly all Tibetan monks and the Franciscan nun, who took part in this experiment, had experiences identical to those resulting from their authentic meditative practices.17 by not being able to experience anything at all).

While some neurotheologists, such as Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili claim to maintain an unbiased scientific approach, trying to neither prove nor disprove the existence of God through their experiments, other researchers, on the contrary, speak in a clear-cut hostile, anti-religious tone. “How much longer will we be slaves to destructive religious creeds…?” asks Matthew Alper in The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God.19 “How could evolution have favoured wasteful investment in preposterous beliefs? How can it be that human minds, evolved to cope with the real world, can hold beliefs that are patently improbable?” challenges spirituality Scott Atran in In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.21 The researchers at GIT claim that these laboratory-generated brain clumps in some ways act like actual living brains and have “a certain amount of awareness.” According to Steve Potter, a neuroscientist at GIT, “since our cultured networks are so interconnected, they have some sense of what is going in themselves… we can also feed their activity back to them, to mediate their “sense of self…”23or by suggesting some over-stretching explanations for mystical experiences as by-products of sexual development in humans, as in the following excerpt:

We believe the neurological machinery of transcendence may have arisen from the neural circuitry that evolved for mating and sexual experience… Scientists think the quiescent and limbic systems evolved partly to link sexual activity to the pleasurable experience of orgasm, with obvious evolutionary benefits. Components of the limbic system are involved in the deafferentation process. … Sex and prayer are obviously not the same experience… Neurologically they are quite different, but “mystical prayer and sexual bliss use similar neural pathways.25

Finally, neurotheologians consciously exclude any possibility of the external transcendental stimuli from their analytical framework. Beyond any doubt, spiritual phenomena are intrinsically physiologically-wired regardless of whether they are identical to, reducible to, are realized by, or are supervenient upon causal interaction with the external environment. Obviously, human emotions have a biological basis and, just like any other human emotions, mystical experiences are also manifest in the brain as a series of chemical reactions. But the real question is: why does neuroscience automatically rule out the possibility that mystical experiences may arise in response to some kind of ontologically existent transcendental stimuli? Human emotions are not necessarily always illusionary or self-induced but they often emerge in response to external stimuli. Why then do mystical experiences have to be so crudely reduced to the mere products of brain damage, chemical dysfunctions or psychological self-stimulations? In the words of Fraser Watts, a psychologist and theologian at the University of Cambridge, “even when the neural basis of religion has been identified, it remains a plausible interpretation of any conceivable neuropsychological facts that there is a genuine experience of God.”27

I teach you beyond-man. Man is something that shall be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass him? … All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and are ye going to be the ebb of this great tide and rather revert to the animal than surpass man? Beyond-man is the significance of earth. Your shall say: beyond-man shall be the significance of earth. I conjure you, my brethren, remain faithful to earth and do not believe those who speak unto you of superterrestial hopes! … What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what can be loved in man is that he is not a transition and a destruction… I love him who worketh and inventeth to build a house for beyond-man and make ready for him earth, animal and plant; for thus he willeth his own destruction. (Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra).

The curiously clairvoyant metaphor of the evolutionary model of human consciousness and its dehumanizing ramifications, which Zarathustra sarcastically articulated, urged humanity to abandon superterrestial hopes for transcendental spirituality and to remain faithful to this-earthly materialist interpretation of human existence. Zarathustra’s genius traced the link between the notion of “beyond-man” epitomizing radical anthropocentric ambitions and its potentially-destructive consequences several years before the “the philosophy of transhumanism” was even formulated and its proponents and critics were born.

Fulfilling Zarathustra’s prophetic predictions, the evolutionary model of natural selection of the species inspired the idea that scientific intervention and the further artificial selection and amelioration of humans was not only possible but highly desirable and, in fact, inevitable. Almost a century ago, Julian Huxley, a strong proponent of eugenics of his time, coined the term “transhumanism”29 The idea of amelioration of human species for the “common good” (and for reduction of State expenditures on the disabled) triggered holocaust, the compulsory sterilization and the artificial selection of humans in the past; it underlies some of the “positive eugenics” of today, presently practiced in China and Singapore, and it inspires the so-called new eugenics or liberal eugenics of the future. Currently liberal eugenics, or “the philosophy of transhumanism,” promotes the enhancement of intellectual, psychobiological and cognitive capacities of humans by means of biotechnological intervention, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, sub-molecular engineering, neuropharmaceuticals, prosthetic enhancements and the creation of artificial intelligence. A new transhumanist paradigm of human existence calls for reinterpretation of human essence as an intelligent machine that is to be redesigned and empowered by means of biotechnologies; it aims at overcoming biological determinism and the potential transition of the human race into a posthuman stage of evolution. The human condition, it holds, is not static as it may have appeared to be to the romanticists and the idealists of old; and rapid future innovations will allow humans to control their own destiny and to shape their own future characteristics as they see fit.

This understanding of human consciousness is based on materialist model of human consciousness that is embedded in dialectical materialism and reinforced by postmodernist anti-essentialism. According to this model, the essence of human consciousness resides in the continuous mutual transformation of the material (real) into the ideal in the process of cognition. This means that the material reality is reflected by the human mind and then translated into “forms of thought,” using Marxian terminology, i.e., ideal concepts, images, theories, hypotheses, etc. Then, the cognized laws of nature are re-materialized – transformed back from the ideal into the material, being embodied in “real” psychosocial patterns or/and substantial technical and productive materials, facilities and installations. Such is an empirical notion of consciousness as a unique constantly recurring cycle; simply put by Joel Achenbach for his Washington Post readers, “the mind, in this view, isn’t a single, specific thing. It’s more like a process, or an “emergent” phenomenon. This means that the many disparate components are not themselves conscious, but when they get together, the consciousness precipitates into being.”31

Indeed, human destiny truly depends on the way human beings see themselves. The way the proponents of transhumanism see it, posthuman cyborgs will be nice and friendly creatures. “Robots are getting closer to humans and humans are getting closer to mechanisms”33

However, it appears that not everybody is equally enthusiastic about the prospect of breeding “beyond-men” and building a posthuman paradise on earth. On the contrary, in the face of the looming biotechnological revolution there are many serious concerns that the eugenics project may so fundamentally alter human nature that it will shove the human race off the center-stage of this autonomously conducted self-evolutionary drama. Many social analysts today warn us that unrestrained technological advancement puts humanity at risk of reduction, and, in the end, the complete relinquishing of its freedom to its own creations—at this point of history human nature may become ultimately altered, and history itself may take an unpredictable turn. In the recently released popular movie titled Matrix, a matrix is as a monstrous technological womb in which the human beings are fueled and thereby are delimited in their world-perception by its parameters. Matrix preprograms humanity and runs the course of its destiny. While it may be looked upon as merely a science fiction fantasy, there are numerous examples in history of how science fiction writers were capable of foreseeing the future direction of technological development and also describing, with a very high degree of accuracy, future inventions way in advance. For example, Aldous Huxley had anticipated reproductive technologies of today – in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, psychotropic drugs, and genetic engineering for the manufacturing of children – as early as 1932. In his futuristic dystopia Brave New World he also envisioned the futuristic version of the technological paradise, in which genetic reproduction has replaced natural methods; religion, art, culture, and the biological family unit has been discarded as useless; suffering and pain, emotional struggle and moral conflict have been abolished; individual identity disintegrated; and a special government body established to ensure the immediate satisfaction of human desires on demand. Strangely, this perfect illustration of the beyond-man paradise on earth with its compulsory sense of happiness rather threatens than attracts us. This picture repulses us because we realize that if we, following Andy Clark, “give up the idea of the mind and the self … in embracing our hybrid natures,” then the difference between human and non-human existence would eventually fade and human beings will have ceased being human – and humane.

What can break through this preprogrammed mind-set, this techno-evolutionary pattern of life? Where is the force so original that it has the capacity to transcend matrix and deliver humanity from its humanoid destiny (besides the courageous and manly Keanu Reeves)? Interestingly, the attempts to escape the matrix mentality have turned into the quest for the restoration of the lost status of human essence as a vital notion. Key concepts in the search for something real that would anchor humanity to its original human condition are human dignity and human nature.

As genetic engineers are trying to envision the future shape of the human being, the humanities scholars are re-opening the question of what it is to be human—for highly pragmatic as well as redemptory reasons. They point to the potential dangers of artificial selection and genetic manipulation of our species (which a transhumanist ideology underpins) and they also fear that any destiny that we may discover on our own in the desacralized and dispirited universe might appear to be the ultimate science fiction nightmare. As Francis Fukuyama notes in Our Posthuman Future, Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, “denial of the concept of dignity – that is, of the idea that there is something unique about the human race that entitles every member of the species to a higher moral status than the rest of the natural world – leads us down a very perilous path.”35 echoes him Jurgen Habermas in The Future of Human Nature, noting that results of a human assuming a god-role can be devastating precisely because “a genetic designer, acting according to his own preferences, assumes an irrevocable role in determining the contours of the life history and identity of another person, while remaining unable to assume even her counterfactual consent.”37

These are only a few examples of the pitfalls on the path towards the creation of the “race of supermen.” There are uncountable bioethical concerns that arise today in the new transhumanist context – as our recent history demonstrates, de-spiritualization of human existence in a post-Darwinian era served as a breeding ground for legitimization of eugenics, artificial selection, and other forms of human manipulation and social stratification. In addition, our society’s moral condition has not much improved since then. However, while concentrating on the technological aspects of the problem we must not overlook what lies at the very heart of the matter. More than fifty years ago, having witnessed the atrocities of the World War II and the nuclear holocaust, Martine Heidegger postulated, “the threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has always afflicted man in his essence.”39

Within the evolutionary framework of consciousness, the human being does not appear much more than merely an “intelligent machine” of nature, and the reality is that as long as we interpret the human being in exclusively materialistic terms, we will always approach human spirituality as a by-product of sociocultural evolution. This is the reason why recovering the conception of spirituality from its contemporary romantic and aesthetic trappings and then reinterpreting it in its original transcendental terms may have deep ethical implications on the discussion of the nature of human consciousness and the re-ascribing of the eternal value to human existence. Arguably, the restoration of the lost status of a spiritualistic paradigm of the human condition may help develop an antidote to postmodern disintegration and dehumanization of science.

Part III: “No-self” in Buddhism: Where Science Meets Religion

Buddhism is a hundred times as realistic as Christianity – it is part of its living heritage that it is able to face problems objectively and coolly; it is the product of long centuries of philosophical speculation. The concept, “god, ” was already disposed of before it appeared… the instinct of personality has yielded to a notion of the “impersonal”… Buddhism, I repeat, is a hundred times more austere, more honest, more objective. (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist)

As often observed within the ongoing dynamics of a science-and-religion interaction, some ancient religious observations of the world had anticipated certain insights of the contemporary science, and the science of today is finally “catching up,” arriving experimentally at the same conceptializations that religion had formulated contemplatively hundreds and thousands years ago. Thus, recent theories of the emergent nature of human consciousness and the illusory sense of selfhood (articulated by neuroscience) serve here as particularly vivid examples. Ironically, a new discovery that neuroscience celebrates today – the fact that human consciousness is an emergent, fluid, fundamentally processual phenomenon – has been a pillar doctrine of Buddhist philosophy for nearly three millennia.

The cornerstones of the original Buddhist teaching, articulated by its founder Gautama Siddhartha over two thousand five hundred years ago, are the conceptions of anātman, translated as “no-soul,” and pratītya-samutpāda view of reality, rendered into European languages as “conditioned genesis” or “interdependent arising.” Pratītya-samutpāda states that fundamental elements of existence, or dharma, arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect; since all phenomena of the world are constantly changing and impermanent, there is no unfaltering human essence, soul or permanent personality. Historically, original Buddhist doctrine arose in direct opposition to Brahmanism and discredited its belief in the existence of ātman an ancient Indian concept of “self,” variously rendered into European languages as “universal identity,” “self,” “soul,” or “ego.” Instead, human essence was reinterpreted in Buddhism as constituent of five essential aggregates (khandha), which exhaustively describe the human being and eliminate any idea of an underlying soul. The five aggregates are: rupa (matter or form), vedana (feeling), sanna (perceptions), samkhara (mental states, volitions), vijÒāna (cognitive awareness). The five-khandha Buddhist analysis of reincarnation also serves as grounds for rejecting selfhood. Buddhist reincarnation, although often crudely misinterpreted in the West as a reincarnation of soul, in essence is a process lacking any permanent shape or substance – at death the five khandhas get dissolved and continue, like a casual current or stream of existence-energy (bhava-sota) to influence another material substrates in a receptive womb; in terms of Buddha, “there is no permanent thing or stuff that flits from body to body.”41 In a Buddhist worldview, “the universe is I” and “I am the universe”; there is no stable identity or self, there is no thinker but a flux of thoughts, there is no perceiver but a flow of perceptions, there is no craver but a stream of cravings, there is no sufferer but a continuity of the states of suffering; there is no experiencing subject, there is only an immediate experience. Thus, to refer to human cognitive awareness (vijÒāna) as an act conducted by an internal subject would be false; consciousness is not an entity – it is rather a process that simply occurs; it is a result of discernment between contextually different patterns. William S. Waldron in his Buddhist Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Thinking about ‘Thoughts without a Thinker’43 The Buddhist fascination with the patterns of dependent relationships as opposed to actions of independent entities is the reason why Buddhist thought converges so closely with current trends in the philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, evolutionary theory, and neuroscience. Apparently, the Buddhist influence on contemporary modern science has been evident for generations before the field of neuroscience emerged. In particularly, it was the Buddhist doctrine of anātman rejecting permanent self that has had a profound influence on Western philosophy: David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James, Charles Moore, Charles Pierce, Martin Heidegger and Ernst Mach among others advocated the concept of the transitory nature of human self; some commentators have even indicated a strong influence of Hume’s and Mach’s pro-Buddhist ideas that deny a permanent Ego and emphasize relativity of the observer on Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity.45 and to trace the conception of socially-constructed identities in postmodernist thought to the Buddhist notion of the transitory nature of the human subject (Susantha Goonatilake, 199547). (It also led some Buddhist bioethicists to argue that abortion, assisted suicide and genetic amelioration of humans can be rationalized and justified from the Buddhist perspective of no-soul (Michael Barnhart, 200249).

As demonstrated above, the Buddhist rhetoric of being in flux” has had profound implications on the scientific understanding of human consciousness and it is now being empirically expanded by current research in neuroscience.

However, the question still stands as to whether this concept of “consciousness in flux” can truly exhaustively describe human existence in all its fullness. Unquestionably, Buddhist and scientific discourses can largely contribute to the exploration of human consciousness, with consciousness interpreted in terms of psyche – that is, a natural extension of human body, but they both evidently fail to acknowledge and to analyze the tout autre transcendentalist phenomenon of pneuma and pneumatological experiences inherent in Christianity, which constitutes the Christian understanding of the human self as a coherent entity.

Part IV: Beyond Soul: Towards Transcendental Selfhood

“Body am I, and soul”- so saith the child. And why should one not speak like children? But the awakened one, the knowing one, saith: “Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body.” The body is a big sagacity, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd. An instrument of thy body is also thy little sagacity, my brother, which thou callest “spirit”- a little instrument and plaything of thy big sagacity. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

What is the transcendentalist phenomenon of pneuma, how is it different from psyche and how does it contribute to the formation of the coherent substantial sense of self? When analyzing human condition within the psychophysical parameters, Christian theologians probably would not argue against the idea of the emergent and ephemeral nature of consciousness as articulated in Buddhism and in contemporary neuroscience. In fact, the Christian theological critique of the natural human condition is parallel to the above discussion on no-self in that it perceives a human subject (the so-called “natural man”) as unstable, confused, constantly changing and relativistic, intrinsically intertwined with and dependent on the environment, constantly absorbing external information, alterable and transient. In Christian understanding, a “soul” is an unfolding processual phenomenon, a flux of reciprocal interaction of the cognitive apparatus with the environmental mega-context. Nevertheless, Christian theological explanation for the fragmented nature of human selfhood exceeds that of the cognitive perception arising in the processes of circular causality. Theological account for the disturbing sense of uprootedness in the “natural man” is derived from what I would call a phenomenon of a “spiritual (pneumatic) dormancy” – a condition acquired as a result of spiritual disconnectedness and alienation of the human subject from the divine Spirit. Consequently, for the adherents of the Christian faith the experience of being “born-again” that refers to the spiritual restoration of relationship between human and God through an acquisition of the supernatural divine substance articulated as “the gift of the Holy Spirit” often implies a renewed understanding of the self as a coherent entity – both in theological and experiential terms. This newly acquired perception of the self as a spiritually complete entity comes in a striking contrast with the previous experience of the self as a disconnected, disintegrated psyche of the “natural man.” Moreover, the experience of human reconciliation with the divine Spirit invokes a new perception of one’s previously incomplete and disintegrated condition as a mere deception of senses. That is to say, through the prism of the newly-discovered transcendentalist self-awareness, one’s prior experience of “no-self” or “being in flux” appears rather illusionary in contrast to a real human conditionof the permanent self (in direct opposition to Buddhism).

This argumentation, however, requires some further clarification of the difference between the functional attributes of soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma) as well as some other Christian anthropological terminology.

Today the terms “soul” (psyche) and “spirit” (pneuma) are normally used interchangeably, erasing some of the contextual differences evident in their usage in Stoic, Platonic, and Gnostic and early Christian texts. And these terms are also frequently used today rather broadly as “the essence of things” or “the heart of the matter,” which contributes to further generalization and confusion of their meanings. Since both psyche and pneuma signify the non-physical characteristics of a human being, anthropologically there is no particularly rigid distinction between these terms even within the Christian theological context – “soul” (psyche) and “spirit” (pneuma) are often used co-terminously in the New Testament. However, there is a significant nuance in the usage of the term pneuma distinguishing it from psyche, which I would like to highlight in what follows.

The Christian notion of “soul” (psyche) signifies the rational and animating principle of the body; utilized as an umbrella-term embracing the non-physical characteristics of a human being. It is used in reference to mind, will, emotions, perceptions, conscious awareness, unconsciousness et. el. – all these manifestations of human activity are familiar concepts in Buddhist anthropology as much as in secular psychology and our daily parlance. Originally, in classic Greek the term “psyche” was used rather ambiguously but in Platonic philosophy it gained a stable interpretation as the lower or intermediate nature of the self, a so-called “animal soul,” carnally influenced and intertwined with the physical world. Pneuma, on the contrary, was utilized by Stoics and later adopted by Philo as the notion signifying the link between man and God, which makes the knowledge of God possible. This understanding of pneuma as a divine aspect of the self was further imported into Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity, where it has acquired the meaning of the transcendental spiritual aspect in a human being, a portion of the divine essence restoring the fullness of human continuum, which had been lost in the event of the original sin, resulting in spiritual dissociation of human spirit from the Spirit of God. In the New Testament the term pneuma is used as a signification of selfhood both in the Gospels (Mark, 2:8; Luke, 23:46) as well as in the Pauline Epistles, where it is utilized simultaneously to refer to the Holy Spirit of God and to a divinely-endowed spiritual aspect latently present in a human being. As Isaak demonstrates in The Concept of Spirit:

Even in its anthropological usages, pneuma is always holy; it is man in his divine aspect. … Certainly, in Paul we find that pneuma – even when it refers to the spirit of man – is always that of the transcendent, holy and divine. … For Paul also pneuma is a term of kinship between God and man, and this explains why he does not clearly distinguish between its anthropological and theological usage. Pneuma stresses man’s affinity with God … by [pneuma] man is open to the transcendent life of God.51

The Church teaches that not only there is no ontological spiritual dualism in a human continuum, but, moreover, there is no clear-cut dualism of soul and body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church postulates that “the human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual” (The Profession of Faith, Section Two, “Body and Soul but Truly One”):

The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body; [234] it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature. [365]53

As evident from the above excerpt, both Philo and Paul distinguish between the universally-present in all humans “latent pneuma,” which does not practically manifest itself and the “special pneuma” granted to the Jewish prophets and Christian believers, whose spiritual quests towards one’s self as a transcendental spirit are often sustained through the prophetic pneumatological experiences referred to as “the gifts of the Spirit” in Christian parlance. To illustrate this, in 1 Corinthians, chapter 2, verse 10-14 Paul writes:

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.55

All the prophetic phenomena outlined by Paul in 1 Corinthians: 12 (apart from “speaking in tongues” that is considered to be a unique post-Pentecost phenomenon) run through the entire Old and New Testaments and are particularly often found in the accounts of the lives of Christ and the apostles, recorded in the Gospels and Acts; they can also be traced throughout the history of the Church and her saints. While Christ is portrayed to have had all the above-described gifts simultaneously operating at all times, other prophetically-anointed biblical protagonists and Christian saints appear to have had only occasional impartations of the Spirit, receiving limited revelatory knowledge or guidance, in line with the above understanding of the Church as the body of Christ on earth, whose humanly-delimited individual members depend on each other for spiritual unity.

Evidently, these supernatural prophetic revelations did not cease with time and are widely present today across denominations. Adherents of Christianity largely rely on the supernatural experiences of the divine: depending on denomination, they may include biblical revelations and divine guidance in daily life, prophetic experiences, divine healings, exorcism and other numerous supernatural phenomena that serve as mechanisms of power in sustaining Christian framework. Some of the most commonly recognized phenomena are “the message of knowledge” and the “message of wisdom,” and “prophecy” that operate as instant and usually very particular supernatural revelations of knowledge communicated by the prophesying subject to another person and function as a supernatural response to this person’s deep inner concerns, personal struggles, questions, prayers, etcetera – such supernatural revelations normally have the most dramatic effect (and as such become powerful tools of individual conviction and devotion to one’s religious system) if the underlying condition is that the prophesying subject cannot have any natural access to the other person’s personal information or if such personal information – inner struggles, prayers, concerns, secret thoughts and emotions – has never been disclosed to anyone. There are many biblical and historical accounts of such revelatory phenomena, with the story of the Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well being one of the most famous examples. While most of the above-described supernatural phenomena have been intentionally excluded from the scientific framework in the course of development of mainstream modern science and marginalized into the realm of the metaphorical or the superstitious, they are universally present throughout Christian denominations and form a specific “prophetic subculture,” having its own theory and praxis, instructional literature, symbolism, etcetera.

For contemporary neuroscience, the exploration of the above revelatory phenomena may be of crucial significance for the study of human potential; however, as demonstrated above, neuroscience operates within the reductionist empirical framework, and both Buddhism and modern science tackle the problematic of human existence on the exclusively psychobiological level. And while Buddhist or scientific understandings of the emergent nature of human psyche have no conflict with that of Christianity, still there is a significant lack – if not a complete absence – of the scientific analysis of the revelatory pheumatological aspect of human self, which may hinder many potential discoveries in the study of the nature of consciousness. Perhaps, in attempting to elaborate the framework for the study of pneuma as personhood, the first step would be to acknowledge that these long-neglected revelatory phenomena exist; they actively shape the lives of religious communities and must be scientifically examined.

Evidently, if embarked upon, this study will require a significant paradigm shift in our understanding of the human existence and invoke multiple serious concerns and questions: how can we bring into perspective spiritual experiences of the adherent agency as a valuable notion into the academic study of religion? How do these revelatory phenomena challenge our empirical frameworks for the interpretation of human subject? How can we elaborate a framework for the scientific study of the transcendent without soliciting unnecessary esoteric connotations?

Most importantly, I argue that human spirituality should not be reduced to the exclusionist parameters of psychosocial interpretation of the human subject and the discussion on human personhood must include the reality – and vitality – of the revelatory transcendental human spirit. It only took two and a half thousand years for science to come up with the same conceptualizations on the nature of human self that Buddhism had formulated millennia ago. Hopefully, it will not take science as long to recognize the significance of the Christian revelatory transcendental discourse for the exploration of human consciousness.


2 Achenbach, Joel, “What Makes Up My Mind? The Complexity of Consciousness Stumps Us All, ” The Dallas Morning News, December, 2, 2007

4 A term coined by Michel Foucault for the analysis of discourse institualization.

6 Bidstrup, Scott, Experiencing God, The Neurology of the Spiritual Experience, http://www.bidstrup.com/mystic.htm

8 Ibid.

10 Heffern, Rich, Exploring the Biology of Religious Experience, National Catholic Reporter, April, 20, 2001, http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/archives/042001/042001a.htm

12 Helminiak, Daniel, A., Neurology, Psychology, and Extraordinary Religious Experiences, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 23, number 1, March, 1984

14 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

18 Alper,Matthew The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God, Rogue Press, 2001

20 Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Oxford University Press, USA, 2002

22 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

26 Horgan, John, “The God Experiments, Discover,” November, 20, 2006, http://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/god-experiments

28 The brother of Aldous Huxley, who coined the term “neurotheology”

30 Achenbach, Joel, “What Makes Up My Mind? The Complexity of Consciousness Stumps Us All, ” The Dallas Morning News, December, 2, 2007

32 Hashimoto, Shuji, A New Relationship between Humans and Machines: Is it Possible to Create Machines with Heart/Kokoro?, Japanese Perspective on Science and Religion, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, 2006, http://www.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/projects/projects.htm

34 Fukuyama, Francis, Our Posthuman Future, Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Picador, New York, pp. 160-161

36 Ibid., p. 87.

38 Heidegger, Martin, Basic Writings, New York: Harper and Row, 1957, p. 308

40 Becker, Carl, B., Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism, South Illinois University, 1993, p. 9

42 Waldron, William, S., Buddhist Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Thinking about ‘Thoughts without a Thinker,’ http://www.acmuller.net/yogacara/articles/buddhist_steps.html

44 The Treatise on Human Nature by David Hume, (1740); Analysis of Sensations by Ernst Mach, (1959), quoted from Goonatilake, Susantha Asian Foundational Approaches to Bioethics, 1995

46 Goonatilake, Susantha Asian Foundational Approaches to Bioethics, 1995, www.stc.arts.chula.ac.th/bioethics.final

48 Barnhart, Michael, “In Extremis: Abortion and Assisted Suicide from a Buddhist Perspective,”Varieties of Ethical Reflection, Outubro, 2002, p. 291

50 Isaak M., The Concept of Spirit, Heythrop Monographs. London, 1976, pp. 79-80

52 Ibid., [234], [365]

54 The Holy Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1984, 1 Cor., 2:10-14, p. 1601


Pragmatism as advocated by William James could not encourage anyone to look for a praxis that would be universally valid for everyone. In 1907, when James published his Pragmatism Arthur Lovejoy, a historian of ideas at Harvard, came forth with a paper, “The Thirteen Pragmatisms II.”3 Against this argument William James could oppose only some pleasing rhetoric to extricate himself from a trap of his own making.

One may argue that a pluralistic society can only be a pragmatic society where majority vote decides what is right and what is wrong praxis. But those, I mean intellectuals, who must have the highest regard for the intellect should at least be ready to see clearly what goes on. Since this conference takes place on Madrid it should be useful to report instances of self-contradictory reasoning offered on behalf of rank immorality as being legislated in the Spain of our day. Here too a major philosophical figure paved the way toward illogicality.

This is not to suggest that William James would have influ­enced Ortega y Gasset, who dismissed America as immature and mechanistic. He did this in his best known book, The Revolt of the Masses. There he tried to figure out the past and future of Europe, which he held to be the only place of real culture. But in the book he purposely ignored the contribution which Christianity, idealism, and liberalism had made to culture. Ortega y Gasset wanted culture without a cult. Similar was the case with Miguel de Unamuno and Salvador de Madariaga, The former advocated faith but only in faith, which James would have found germane to his thinking. James, the psychologist, would have disagreed with Madariaga who held high national psychology only insofar as his preference would have been for American instead of Spanish national psycholo­gy.

Those three are the icons of a purely humanistic orientation in Spain today as distinct from an effort to recover Marxism under the label of socialism. Were its pseudo-democratic spokesmen to say that majority opinion is the final test of truth, they would dissipate by one stroke the fogginess of their discourse, full of unwarranted generalizations about culture and society. But then the emperor would appear without cloth, or at least without the semblance of logic. It should not be surprising that contradic­tions abound in any humanistic defense of immorality which presents it as the new morality.

In his The Revolt of the Masses Ortega y Gasset saw at least the hollowness of references very fashionable in the 1920s to the “new morality.” Ortega began the final chapter of his book that had for its title “We Arrive at the Real Question,” as follows: “Do not believe a word you hear from the young when they talk about the ‘new morality’. I absolutely deny that there exists today in any corner of the Continent of Europe a group inspired by a new ethos which shows signs of being a moral code. When people talk of the ‘new morality’ they are merely commit­ting a new immorality and looking for a way of introducing contraband goods.” Ortega looked for a new morality that would be more than arbitrary praxis either by the individuals or by the masses. He planned to set forth that new morality in a book that would present in details “the doctrine of human existence.” This book he never wrote. Had he tried to do it logically, he should have far transcended all forms of pragma­tism. In doing so he would have discovered what had already been discovered by Christiani­ty.

Christianity stated clearly what is the first in being and intelligibility, or a personal God in brief. Moreover, Christianity, and it alone of all cults, succeeded in impressing that notion on humanity. It may be that our age is post-Christian, but no post-Christian age shall ever be a-Christian, that is, free of any trace of Christiani­ty. One may disagree with Christianity, but one cannot escape its logic which posits a fully rational starting point. One may consider Christianity erroneous, but it is not possible to say that it is illogical. And if one has to choose between an error which is logical and an error, such as pragmatism, which is flouting all logic, the preference for the logical should seem com­pelling.


2. Journal of Philosophy 5 (1908), 29-39.


Since this volume’s release in 2002, significant scientific advances have been made that can aid in the search for provisional answers to these sorts of questions. Interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), a term coined by UCLA psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, is a growing transdisciplinary field that focuses on ways in which relationships fundamentally shape and change the architecture and functioning of the human brain. In this essay, I argue that IPNB points to a specific set of scientifically-demonstrated conditions that appear to encourage the emergence of empathy; and further, that this set of conditions constitutes the core components of a “spirituality of compassion” by which specific spiritual practices in diverse religious traditions can be evaluated for their potential to cultivate caring attitudes and actions in selves and societies.

Following introductory discussions on definitional and methodological issues, I present key assumptions in IPNB, and demonstrate ways in which IPNB sheds light on important aspects of human empathy and compassion. Then, drawing on this analysis, I introduce four specific conditions that appear to have profound potential to encourage the emergence of empathy in individuals and groups, and suggest that these criteria may function as central elements of a spirituality of compassion. Next, to demonstrate how this set of conditions might function, I offer a case study in which I describe the Native American Ojibwe practice of the “talking circle,” and assess it through the lens of my IPNB-derived spirituality of compassion. I conclude by addressing some questions that remain unanswered, and by suggesting areas for future research.


Since the words “spirituality,” “empathy,” and “compassion” often mean quite different things to different scholars in different fields, it makes sense to begin by clarifying what is implied by them in the context of this essay. In this section, I offer what I judge to be the most helpful definitions of each term, given the goals and purview of the present study.


It is well known that “spirituality” defies definitional consensus. Lucy Bregman has recently argued that the current abundance of definitions for spirituality renders the concept too ambiguous to be coherent or meaningful.3 For these reasons and others, it continues to be studied, defined, and redefined by scholars from a wide range of disciplines. The plethora of definitions need not necessarily be negative; it may be that the array is due more to the diversity of cultures and traditions in which spirituality finds expression, and the variety of disciplines that examine it, than to any inherent murkiness in the construct itself. Whatever the case, the fact that spirituality’s meaning is somewhat of a moving goalpost ought not to deter us from attempts to understand and communicate its significance, and outline its contours in particular contexts.

I am inclined to favor relational definitions of spirituality—in other words, those which tend to the dynamics of our ongoing relationships with ourselves, others, and that which we deem “sacred.” Following theologian F. LeRon Shults and psychologist Steven J. Sandage, I define spirituality as “ways of relating to the sacred.”5 and may also include persons, rituals, objects, narratives, texts, times, and spaces that are “set apart…as special, uniquely transcendent, and not ordinary or profane.”7 Second, it can support a focus on the dynamism of spirituality; that is, the ongoing transformations in our ways of relating to the sacred throughout life. Third, it is an inclusive and versatile definition, and can function descriptively in relation to a wide range of spiritual practices.9

Contemporary definitions of empathy often vary according to discipline. Philosopher Susan Langer speaks of empathy as an involuntary breach of individual separateness.11 Among social and developmental psychologists, definitions of empathy tend to center on emotional/affective responses to others.13 Interpersonal neurobiologists propose that empathy involves the complex process of imagining what it is like to be the other while simultaneously holding our own perspective in mind.15 manner.


“Compassion” is derived from the Latin pati, meaning “to suffer,” and cum, meaning “with.” Thus, translated literally, compassion means “to suffer with.” As with empathy, definitions of compassion differ according to the contexts, perspectives, and interests of those doing the defining; however, most definitions hew closely to the word’s original etymological meaning.

For Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, compassion means “going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.”17 Clinical psychologists Patrick R. Steffen and Kevin S. Masters speak of compassion as “being moved by the suffering of others and having the desire to alleviate that suffering,” and posit that a “compassionate personality” involves “altruistic behavior with a deep sense of empathy for the needs of others.”19 This brief sampling of definitions reveals that sharing in the suffering of others, and wanting them to have respite, is fundamental to compassion.

I define compassion as being empathically connected with others in their suffering, and taking action to ease their distress. This definition presupposes empathy as I have defined it above; however, it also goes beyond empathy in that it involves a component of action, or helping behavior.21 Rather, compassion is undergirded by a deep sense of respect for the other person. Finally, compassion should not be simply equated with all forms of “prosocial” action; helping behaviors are sometimes carried out in non-empathic, non-compassionate ways. While gauging human motives is always a thorny undertaking, as a general rule, a sense of empathic resonance with the pain of the other—a basic experience of “suffering with”—should be involved to some degree in those individual and communal expressions of care that we label “compassionate.”23 in each of its forms, postfoundationalist models emphasize that because all forms of human inquiry (including scientific and spiritual reflection) are irreducibly contextual and social, transdisciplinarity is a practical, embodied skill of particular, historically-situated, persons-in-relation. Practically speaking, postfoundationalism asks transdisciplinarians to assume self-aware, critical postures toward patterns in their traditions, beliefs, cultures, practices, and assumptions, and attempt to make sense of those patterns through ongoing dialogue with scholars in other fields.

I take seriously the postfoundationalist imperatives to integrate self-awareness and communal dialogue into the core of the transdisciplinary task. For the present study, this means that I remain intentionally conscious of the ways in which my own experience as a person who has received graduate education in both psychotherapy and theology has birthed and continues to shape my approach to questions of human nature, compassion, and transformation. In constructing my arguments, I draw not only on scholarly sources, but also implicitly from my experiences working with patients in therapeutic settings, and from my critical self-reflections on those experiences. My thinking has also been enriched by innumerable transdisciplinary conversations I have had over the years with therapists, supervisors, and religious scholars. A postfoundationalist approach, therefore, gives me latitude to intentionally integrate my personal and vocational history, self-consciousness, and relations with others into the very heart of my work.

In addition, postfoundationalism affirms that as we attempt to cross the boundaries of our particular disciplines and traditions, specific meeting-points for mutual understanding and collaboration can emerge. These “transversal spaces”—a notion originating in the work of Calvin Schrag25 Compassion, I submit, may be thought of as one such “transversal space” in which the distinct assumptions and thought patterns of hard science and spiritual practice can meet.

Basic Assumptions of Interpersonal Neurobiology

Drawing richly from many different disciplines (including neuroscience, psychiatry, developmental psychology, social psychology, psychoanalysis, family systems theory, ethology, evolutionary theory, comparative anatomy, and genetics), IPNB aims to paint a picture of human experience and the dynamics of change across the lifespan by focusing on ways in which human beings are formed and transformed through relationships.27

Prior to discussing specific ways in which IPNB sheds light on conditions that encourage the emergence of empathy and thereby opens up space in which to propose a scientifically informed spirituality of compassion, it will be necessary to outline several of IPNB’s basic assumptions.

Brain and Mind

First, IPNB assumes that interpersonal relationships are the natural habitat of the human brain and mind. Cozolino describes the brain as “an organ of adaptation that builds its structures through interactions with others.”29 are constituted by their ongoing synaptic connections with other neurons, so too are brains continually being formed and re-formed through ongoing interactions with other brains. Because the brain is best described as an open system that undergoes continuous change in relational contexts across the lifespan,31

Not only the brain’s health and vitality—but also its very existence—is essentially dependent upon the myriad relational connections that occur across “social synapses.”33 For Siegel, the human mind is both neurobiological (involving the flow of energy and information within the body, including the brain) and interpersonal (involving the flow of energy and information between persons). Because “Energy and information can flow within one brain, or between brains,” the mind is said to emerge at the dynamic interface of embodied and relational processes.35 “An intact and well-developed prefrontal cortex enables us to maintain a simultaneous sense of self and others that is necessary for interpersonal strategizing and decision making.”37 Let us briefly consider six of the most important structures of the social brain—many of which are hidden beneath the brain’s surface. 39 are central facets of the social brain. As we will see, many of the neurological structures and systems that IPNB finds indispensable for understanding human social and emotional life play a central role in the experience and expression of compassion.

At the same time that IPNB singles out discrete neurological structures and systems, it also attends to the connections between them in order to better understand the dynamic processes by which the brain regulates the flow of energy and information. The linking up of neural structures and networks in ways that that contribute to the establishment of “a functional flow in the states of mind across time”41 and the middle prefrontal cortex is generally seen as the main hub of this process. Greater levels of neural integration are associated with increased capacities to balance emotion, construct coherent life narratives, experience self-awareness, respond adaptively to stress, form meaningful relationships with others, regulate the body, and (most importantly for our purposes) respond empathically to others. As we will see, there are specific conditions that appear to encourage the process of neural integration.

Attachment Theory

Third, IPNB assumes that attachment theory provides the best available model for analyzing the interaction between relationships and the brain in the unfolding of the human personality. Originating in the 1950’s in the work of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby,43 Many controlled studies have confirmed its usefulness for explaining and predicting various aspects of human experience over the lifespan, including adult behavioral tendencies, developmental patterns, relational styles, cognitive processes, and self-regulatory abilities.45 proposed the existence of three main bonding styles (or “attachment schemas”): secure, avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent. Secure attachment is promoted by sensitive, consistent, and responsive care from the primary caregiver. A secure attachment bond nurtures infant development by providing a “secure base” for environmental exploration, a reliable relational context for learning how to adaptively regulate cognitive and affective processes in the face of anxiety, and an orientation to human relationships marked by a balance of separateness and connectedness.

Insecure attachment bonds “bias the infant’s relational development toward either an excessive preoccupation with maintaining proximity or toward a persistent avoidance of closeness.”47 parenting. Here the child’s attachment system is “hyperactivated,” resulting in anxious clinging to the parent (intense “proximity-seeking”), and angry, distressed, frightened, and inconsolable affect. Later research also identified a fourth “disorganized/disorienting” category of attachment49 Along with gene expression, early communications between parent and infant “literally shape the structure of the child’s developing brain.”51 communication contributes to the creation of key structures and systems in the baby’s rapidly developing brain. The neural circuitries responsible for organizing one’s relational behaviors and “stress coping capacities” throughout life are formed in and through the countless verbal and nonverbal interactions that transpire between a parent and child during the infant and toddler years.53


Fourth, IPNB assumes that neural change occurs throughout the lifespan. Several decades ago, there was general scientific consensus that lower brain and neocortical areas were unchangeable after early child development. While experiences with attachment figures in infancy and childhood do have a disproportionate effect on the growth and development of neural systems, more recent research suggests that the human brain is endowed with a lifelong ability to restructure itself with each new experience. Interpersonal neurobiologists thus maintain a constant emphasis on “the change[s] in neural connectivity induced by experience.”55 interpersonal neurobiologists are generally optimistic about ways in which attuned human relationships can, at any point in the life cycle, function as contexts in which positive neurological changes can unfold in the brain.57

Neural integration—the connecting of dissociated brain networks to form a functional whole—appears to be the manner by which brains change for the better. Along with loving and trusting interpersonal relationships, one of the most important factors in brain integration is the intentional use of executive forms of attention to notice and become attuned with one’s own internal states (e.g., fears, memories, anticipations, bodily sensations, etc.). Focused self-awareness—what Siegel calls “intrapersonal attunement” or “mindfulness”—involves “paying attention, in the present moment, on purpose, without grasping onto judgments.”59 and neurogenesis.61 This close neurobiological link between intrapersonal and interpersonal resonance in the cultivation of overall well-being becomes especially important when the focus is narrowed on questions of empathy and compassion.

The Neuroscience of Empathy and Compassion

It is perhaps natural for many Westerners to think of compassion as either a relatively fixed emotional and/or behavioral state, or a virtue that is possessed by individuals in varying degrees. It may strike us as somewhat odd to conceive of compassion as a trainable skill; yet, that is precisely the view that is now emerging in some parts of the neuroscientific community. This is particularly the case among researchers whose work focuses on the intersections between meditative traditions, compassion, and brain plasticity.63 These “mirror neurons” (otherwise known as “monkey-see, monkey-do” neurons) were later discovered in humans,65 While natural selection may have originally favored mirror systems in primates because they helped in coordinating social behaviors that contributed to group survival (e.g., hunting, gathering, and migration), it is thought that, in homo sapiens, “mirror systems and resonance behaviors evolved into our ability to attune to the emotional states of others. They provide us with a visceral-emotional experience of what the other is experiencing, allowing us to know others from the inside out.”67

In humans, mirror neurons are unique due largely to the fact that they are located in frontal and parietal cortical regions of the brain.69 Specific neuronal groups have been found to specialize in and respond to distinct facial expressions, vocal tones, and bodily movements in others.71

To respond to the facial, vocal, and bodily cues from another person, translate those cues into our own embodied experience, interpret them with relative accuracy, and initiate an active, intentional response is a set of skills that emerges from the high-level integrative processing functions of the prefrontal cortex.73 Among other things, the Oliners found that rescuers tended to describe their early family relationships with caregivers as close and caring, and tended to have parents who used reason rather than physical means for discipline. They also found that rescuers were more likely than non-rescuers to report feeling a poignant, personal sense of empathy for the pain of the Jewish victims. The Oliners see a clear connection between these findings; namely, that from secure attachment relationships in early life, “more rescuers learned the satisfactions accruing from personal bonds with others,”75 IPNB’s careful consideration of the role of brain development in early life helps make neurobiological sense of this link. How so?

In addition to secure attachment relationships with parents in early life, research reveals that individuals high in empathy-related responding tend to have a greater ability to regulate emotion (i.e., to have conscious control over their ability to focus and shift attention and self-soothe when under stress).77 and are at greater risk for emotional disturbances associated with poor regulatory control.79 It also makes sense that insecure bonds, trauma, and/or high levels of environmental stress in early life would stunt the growth of those neural structures and systems,81

The Inverse Relationship Between Fear and Compassion

Another fascinating finding in the Oliners’ study concerns the close correlation between fear and non-helping. In their efforts to understand bystanders’ “failure to act” (i.e., their non-assistance of Jews in Nazi Europe), they found that “Despite their hostility toward Nazis, the majority of bystanders were overcome by fear, hopelessness, and uncertainty… Asked to describe their lives during the war, their stories are brief and overwhelmingly involved with basic survival.”83

IPNB pays close attention to ways in which the brain’s “fear circuitry” shapes and is shaped by both genetic factors and social interactions. In a chapter entitled “Social Phobia: When Others Trigger Fear,” Cozolino explains how the evolutionary processes that have guided the survival and development of our species have rendered the amygdala (the brain structure most directly responsible for fear responses) fully operational even before birth, making fear perhaps the strongest early human emotion.85 The amygdala also acts as a “social brake,” inhibiting contact with unfamiliar “others” until their safety can be assessed.87 Secondly, the amygdala is kept in check by its “reciprocal relationship” with the orbital medial prefrontal cortex (OMPFC), whose job it is to inhibit the amygdala’s fear responses based on conscious awareness.89

Once more, an IPNB approach reveals that a well-developed prefrontal cortex—so integral to secure relational attachments, self-regulatory abilities, successful fear modulation, and experiences and expressions of empathy—is at the very heart of compassion. Because “learning not to fear and learning to love are biologically interwoven,”91 and mindfulness practices (intrapersonal attunement)93—is also the second component of a spirituality of compassion. For many individuals, becoming aware of the flow of one’s own consciousness (i.e., meta-cognition) is a profoundly spiritual experience. Experiencing the conscious “I” as an observer of our own mental representations and bodily sensations can lead us to affirm ourselves as sacred in some sense. For many, the feeling of freedom that can result from experiencing the self as more than the sum of ever-shifting sensations, emotions, and cognitions can be extraordinarily inspiring and empowering.

Thus, when we bring together IPNB and spirituality, what emerges is that relating to ourselves with care, respect, curiosity, and love appears to be central to the experience of transformation toward well-being, and a vital aspect of what it means to relate to the sacred in ways that foster empathy.95

Due to its ability to free us from fear, open us up to receiving, and encourage neural integration, relational safety is the third condition for the emergence of empathy, and the third component of a spirituality of compassion. Spirituality often involves a deep sense of existential vulnerability, so creating safe relational spaces for communal experiences of the divine is particularly important.97 Not surprisingly, research reveals strong links between mental health, emotional regulation, secure attachment, and coherent narratives. Cozolino explains:

Because narratives require participation of multiple structures throughout the brain, they require us to combine, in conscious memory, our knowledge, sensations, feelings, and behaviors. In bringing together multiple functions from diverse neural networks, narratives provide the brain with a tool for both emotional and neural integration.99 The combination, therefore, of (on the one hand) neural integration and empathic connection with others and self, and (on the other hand) deep personal meaning and existential orientation, means that storytelling holds potential to raise us to greater levels of concern for the pain of others, and motivate us to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering by weaving their stories into the fabric of our own.

A Case Study: The Ojibwe Talking Circle

A spirituality of compassion consisting of interpersonal attunement, intrapersonal attunement, relational safety, and shared narratives provides a set of criteria by which diverse spiritual practices can be theoretically evaluated for their potential to facilitate compassion in persons and communities. To show this, I now describe the Native American Ojibwe ritual of the talking circle, and briefly discuss it through the lens of my IPNB-derived spirituality of compassion.

The following analysis draws heavily from my own first-hand experiences participating in talking circles as a therapist at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.101

The Ojibwe are a story people, and talking circles (otherwise called peacemaking circles or healing circles) are deeply rooted in their tradition of passing on their spiritual and cultural heritage through oral practices. The purpose of the talking circle is to create a safe space for small group interaction in which personal narratives and viewpoints can be communicated in an atmosphere of authenticity and deep compassionate listening that is free from threats of judgment or condemnation.103 The talking circle thus becomes a place for openness to oneself, others, the Creator, and Nature; self-revelation (especially around painful topics) can be risked because rejection and assault are not threats. Because such protected atmospheres nurture trusting human interactions and de-activate the brain’s fear circuitry (which is toxic to neuroplastic processes), neural integration and the emergence of empathy and compassion may become more likely therein.

Sharing in one another’s spoken narratives is central to the talking circle experience, and is seen as a key ingredient in the ritual’s power to bring peace and healing to relationships with oneself, others, Earth, and Kitche Manitou. Deep, respectful, compassionate listening to stories of pain and suffering brings a sense of sacred connection one to another, and is experienced as a source of redemptive spiritual and personal transformation. As participants speak their stories out loud and resonate with the stories of others, neuroplastic processes of hemispheric, systemic, and structural integration may be activated, perhaps leading to deeper capacities to be affected by the states of others in self-aware ways, and greater inclinations toward actively reaching out to others in distress.


I have suggested that there are significant implications in IPNB for identifying conditions that foster empathic ways of being in the world, and that those conditions may be gathered together to form the elements of a spirituality of compassion by which particular spiritual practices can be theoretically evaluated for their potential to cultivate compassion persons and communities.

Certainly, there are questions that remain unanswered. First, given the twenty-first century reality of de-personalized, technology-dependent communication practices, and the apparent necessity of attuned, face-to-face, voice-to-voice human interactions for brain integration and the growth of empathic capacities, how realistic is it to propose a spirituality of compassion that relies so heavily on direct, embodied, relational encounters? In our globalized and bureaucracized world, compassionate praxis often involves de-personalized, systemically-aware actions rather than literal “helping-hand” behaviors. Most of us do not have potential genocide victims living down the street whom we could take into our homes. However, other impersonal acts such as refusing to purchase clothing produced by companies that exploit workers, supporting legislation that protects persons from torture and/or war crimes, and purchasing energy-efficient vehicles may have significant, positive ramifications for others who are suffering—either now or in the future. Compassion in our world requires higher-order empathy; we must find ways to connect with others’ pain when we cannot see their faces, hear their voices, speak their languages, or know their names. How can an IPNB-informed spirituality of compassion encourage care in our increasingly alienated world?

Another possible point of ambiguity concerns the fact that redemptive spiritual transformation often involves experiences of pain, darkness, and/or purgation.105 are there ways in which sharing in the suffering of another may sometimes weaken (rather than strengthen) one’s ability to act in ways that alleviate their distress? It seems important to acknowledge that there are times and places in which an apparently non-empathic and/or dispassionate response may in fact be the most helpful one.

I do not view these points of ambiguity as detractions from my argument. Rather, I think of them as invitations for future explorations into the implications of IPNB for spirituality, transformation, and compassion. Further research is needed not only on the above questions; broadly speaking, we need more empirical studies that shed light on relationships between specific spiritual practices, neurological patterns, attachment schema, and compassionate attitudes and actions. This kind of work will require input and expertise from many different religious, scientific, philosophical, and cultural perspectives. We are thus invited toward ever-greater efforts to attune with ourselves, scholars in our own fields, researchers in other disciplines, and practitioners in diverse cultural and religious traditions in order to continue the complex, arduous, yet rewarding process of uncovering the dynamics of human transformation, and revealing the conditions of the possibility of the emergence of compassion in selves and societies.



2 Lucy Bregman, “Spirituality: A Glowing and Useful Term in Search of a Meaning,” Omega: Journal of Death and Dying 53, ½ (2006): 5-26.

4 F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage, Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).

6 Shults and Sandage, Transforming Spirituality, 161.

8 I define “spiritual practice” as an intentional mode of acting that is thought to mediate our relation(s) to the sacred.

10 Susan K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).

12 Daniel Batson, well known for his “empathy-altruism hypothesis” which claims that “feeling empathy for a person in need evokes altruistic motivation to relieve that need,” defines empathy as “an other-oriented emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another.” “Addressing the Altruism Question Experimentally,” in Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, & Religion in Dialogue, ed. Stephen G. Post, Lynn G. Underwood, Jeffrey P. Schloss, and William B. Hurlbut (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 89-105; quote p. 92. Similarly, Nancy Eisenberg defines empathy as “an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel.” Eisenberg distinguishes empathy from sympathy. For her, sympathy is “an affective response that frequently stems from empathy, but does not consist merely of feeling the same emotion as the other is experiencing… Rather, sympathy consists of feelings of sorrow or concern for the distressed or needy other.” “Empathy-Related Emotional Responses, Altruism, and Their Socialization,” in Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature, ed. Richard J. Davidson and Anne Harrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 131-164; quote p. 135.

14 Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006), 19 (hereafter NHR); Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell. Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive (New York: Penguin, 2003), 224.

16 Henri Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 27.

18 Patrick R. Steffen and Kevin S. Masters, “Does Compassion Mediate the Intrinsic Religion-Health Relationship?” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 30, 3 (2005): 217-224; quote p. 218.

20 My conception of “helping behavior” is broad; while concrete actions such as feeding, clothing, washing, or nursing another person are obvious examples, I also consider the simple act of empathically bearing witness to another’s pain a “helping action.” As Anne Harrington (Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University) has pointed out, when we worry too much about whether empathy or compassion are translated into actual helping behavior, we are often tempted to overlook opportunities for deeper understandings of the role of compassion in human life: “I think in some ways, knowing that a person is compassionately watching your suffering, bearing witness, is helpful in itself even if no action results.” Anne Harrington et al., “Dialogues, Part I: Fundamental Questions,” in Davidson and Harrington, Visions of Compassion, 81-103; quote p. 101.

22 There is empirical evidence to indicate that compassionate attitudes and behaviors are linked with positive health outcomes (including reduced depressive symptoms and reduced perceived stress); however, there is also evidence that compassionate behaviors alone (i.e., without corresponding compassionate attitudes) are not enough to engender health benefits. For example, in their study on the role of compassion in the religion-health relationship, Steffen and Masters found evidence that “compassionate behaviors only relate to better health functioning when they are accompanied by internalized compassionate attitudes.” “Does Compassion Mediate the Intrinsic Religion-Health Relationship?” 222. Similarly, Lynn G. Underwood, who studies factors affecting health and illness in human populations, finds that there are motives that detract from the quality of compassionate love. These include the need for reciprocal love and affection, the need to be accepted by others or by God, the need to belong, guilt, fear, seeing the other as an extension or reflection of oneself, pleasure in looking well in the eyes of others, control of the other through their indebtedness, desire to exercise power over others, desire to reinforce a positive image of self and/or feelings of superiority, and a desire to avoid confrontation. “The Human Experience of Compassionate Love: Conceptual Mapping and Data from Selected Studies,” in Post et al., Altruism and Altruistic Love, 72-105.

24 Cf. Calvin Schrag, “Transversal Rationality,” in The Question of Hermeneutics: Essays in Honor of Joseph J. Kockelmans, ed. T. J. Stapleton (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1994).

26 While some references will be made in this paper to specific scientific studies that inform IPNB, as a general rule I will focus on IPNB scholarship, which synthesizes the relevant primary source material. This is due to (first) the vastness and diversity of the literature on which IPNB draws, and (second) the overall goal of this essay, which is to connect IPNB itself with thoughts on spirituality, empathy, and compassion.

An implication of this, of course, is that my argument is prone to the critiques to which IPNB is prone. As a fairly new transdisciplinary field, IPNB has not yet been the subject of significant critical evaluation. This is not likely to remain the case indefinitely; moreover, we can anticipate that criticism will likely come from two different philosophical/methodological perspectives, broadly speaking. On the one hand, those who approach the study of the human mind reductionistically may be suspicious of the IPNB concept of “social synapses” (Cozolino 2006, 5), which seems to point toward the idea of “extended mind.” Reductionists may also be nervous about the notion of “intrapersonal attunement” in which “the mind [uses] the brain to create itself” (Siegel 2007, 32), which appears to suggest a sort of “top-down causality” that is typical of emergence theories. On the other hand, those who hold to a dualistic anthropology in which body and soul (or the “material” and the “spiritual”) are seen as separate, distinct substances may be dissatisfied with IPNB’s focus on the interface between brain functioning and human relationality, to the exclusion of discussions on “immaterial” phenomena. Dualists may also worry about the direct link IPNB makes between “neural integration” in the human brain and overall well-being. While space does not permit a treatment of these philosophical and methodological issues, suffice it to say that most IPNB scholarship to this point seems to presuppose a kind of “middle ground” between reductionism and dualism.

28 Cozolino, NHR, 6.

30 Cozolino, NHR, 50.

32 “The social synapse is the space between us. It is also the medium through which we are linked together into larger organisms such as families, tribes, societies, and the human species as a whole.” Cozolino, NHR, 5.

34 Daniel J. Siegel, “An Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach to Psychotherapy,” Psychiatric Annals 36, 4 (April 2006): 248-256; quote p. 248.

36 Cozolino, NHR, 277.

38 These and other brain structures are discussed in Cozolino, NHR, 51-57.

40 Siegel, The Developing Mind, 8.

42 Cf. John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss. Volume 1: Attachment, 2nd ed. (1969; New York: Basic Books, 1982); A Secure Base: Parent-child Attachments and Healthy Human Development (New York: Basic Books, 1988).

44 For an accessible introduction to attachment theory and research, see Robert Karen, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love (Warner Books, 1994; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). For a literature review of adult attachment studies and a discussion of their significance for a description of the “healthy, effective self,” see Frederick G. Lopez and Kelly A. Brennan, “Dynamic Processes Underlying Adult Attachment Organization: Toward an Attachment Theoretical Perspective on the Healthy and Effective Self,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 47, 3 (2000): 283-300.

46 Lopez and Brennan, “Dynamic Processes Underlying Adult Attachment Organization,” 284.

48 M. Main and J. Solomon, “Procedures for Identifying Infants as Disorganized/Disoriented During the Ainsworth Strange Situation,” in Attachment in the Preschool Years: Theory, Research, and Intervention, ed. M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti, and E.M. Cummings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 121-160.

50 Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (New York: The Guilford Press, 1999), 21.

52 Schore, Affect Dysregulation.

54 Siegel, “An Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach to Psychotherapy,” 250.

56 A study conducted in 2005 by Sara Lazar and her colleagues—one cited frequently by Siegel—appears to provide striking evidence for the adult brain’s ability to undergo significant change in prefrontal cortical areas in response to specific practices. The study found that individuals who had engaged in mindfulness meditation practices for extended periods of time had thicker middle prefrontal areas and right insulas than non-meditators, and that the thickness in these regions was correlated with length of time spent in mindfulness meditation. This research lends support to the idea that mindfulness practices have the potential to transform and solidify neural patterns in ways that promote overall well-being. Siegel, The Mindful Brain, 341-345; cf. S.W. Lazar, C.E. Kerr, R.H. Wasserman, J.R. Gray, D.N. Greve, M.T. Treaday, et al, “Meditation Experience is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness,” Neuroreport 16, 17 (2005): 1893-1897.

58 Siegel, “An Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach to Psychotherapy,” 250. Siegel’s definition of mindfulness closely resembles the definition offered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is renowned for bringing mindfulness meditation into the mainstream of modern medicine and society. In Kabat-Zinn’s view, “An operational working definition of mindfulness is: the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future,” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 10, 2 (2003): 144-156; quote p. 145. Cf. Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness (New York: Hyperion, 2005).

60 The creation of new brain cells.

62 “Many of our core mental processes such as awareness and attention and emotion regulation, including our very capacity for happiness and compassion, should best be conceptualized as trainable skills. The meditative traditions provide a compelling example of strategies and techniques that have evolved over time to enhance and optimize human potential and well-being. The neuroscientific study of these traditions is still in its infancy but the early findings promise to both reveal the mechanisms by which such training may exert its effects as well as underscore the plasticity of the brain circuits that underlie complex mental functions.” A. Lutz, J.D. Dunne and R.J Davidson, “Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness: An Introduction,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, ed. P.D. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch, and E. Thompson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 499-554, quoted in Siegel, The Mindful Brain, 101-102.

64 M. Iacoboni, R.P. Woods, M. Brass, H. Bekkering, J.C Maziotta, and G. Rizzolatti, “Cortical Mechanisms of Human Imitation,” Science 286, 5449 (1999): 2526-2528; M. Iacoboni, L.M. Koski, M. Brass, H. Bekkering, R.P. Woods, M.C. Dubeau, J.C. Maziotta, and G. Rizzolatti, “Reafferent Copies of Imitated Actions in the Right Superior Temporal Cortex,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, 24 (2001): 13995-13999.

66 Cozolino, NHR, 59.

68 Cozolino summarizes the specific areas of the brain involved in mirroring: “Current research supports that the human mirror system extends to the temporal, parietal, and frontal lobes as well as to the insula, amygdala, basal ganglia, and cerebellum. The areas of the brain that become activated depend on the task and whether it is observed, imagined, or involves emotions.” NHR, 193.

70 Cozolino, NHR, 186.

72 A wealth of psychiatric and neuroscientific research has confirmed that prefrontal cortical areas are integrally involved in human empathy, morality, and compassion. Many of these studies focus on the results of damage to prefrontal areas, or abnormalities in prefrontal functioning in individuals who have been diagnosed with social psychiatric disorders. Cf. M. Dolan, “What Neuroimaging Tells us About Psychopathic Disorders,” Hospital Medicine 32 (2002): 417-427; King et al.,“Doing the Right Thing”; Michael Koenigs, Lian Young, Ralph Adolphs, Daniel Tranel, Fiery Cushman, Marc Hauser, and Antonio Damasio, “Damage to the Prefrontal Cortex Increases Utilitarian Moral Judgments.” Nature 446 (April 2007): 908-911; J. L M¸ller, M. Sommer, V. Wagner, K. Lange, H. Taschler, C.H. Rˆder et. al., “Abnormalities in Emotion Processing Within Cortical and Subcortical Regions in Criminal Psychopaths: Evidence From a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study Using Pictures With Emotional Content,” Biological Psychiatry 54 (2003): 152-162.

74 Oliner and Oliner, The Altruistic Personality, 173. It is interesting to note that Elliot Sober, in his attempt to make evolutionary sense of “extended compassion” (i.e., feeling compassion toward strangers and other species), points to the Oliners’ study as evidence that the evolutionarily advantageous trait of feeling compassion toward one’s children (i.e., secure attachment relationships) have certain side effects, and that extended compassion is one of them. “Individuals well attuned to the suffering of those near and dear have circles of compassion that potentially extend quite far afield.” Elliot Sober, “Kindness and Cruelty in Evolution,” 63.

76 N. Eisenberg, M. Wentzel, and J.D. Harris, “The Role of Emotionality and Regulation in Empathy-Related Responding,” School Psychology Review 27 (1998): 506-521.

78 R. Karr-Morse and M.S. Wiley, Ghosts From the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997); B. D. Perry, “Incubated in Terror: Neurodevelopmental Factors in the ‘Cycle of Violence,’” in Children in a Violent Society, ed. J. Osofsky (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997), 124-149.

80 “‘Developmental overpruning’ refers to a toxic effect of overwhelming stress on the young brain: The release of stress hormones leads to excessive death of neurons in the crucial pathways involving the neocortex and limbic system—the areas responsible for emotional regulation.” Siegel, The Developing Mind, 85. Cf. Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton, and Clare Pain, Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006); Schore, Affect Dysregulation; Onno van der Hart, Ellert R.S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele. The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006).

82 Oliner and Oliner, The Altruistic Personality, 146.

84 Cozolino, NHR, 250.

86 There is evidence, in fact, that “the neurobiology of racism… [is] related to the fear circuitry of the brain.” Cozolino, NHR, 253; Cf. E.A. Phelps, K.J. O’Connor, W.A. Cunningham, E.S. Funayama, J.C. Gatenby, J.C. Gore, “Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12 (2000): 729-738; E.A. Phelps, and L.A. Thomas, “Race, Behavior, and the Brain: The Role of Neuroimaging in Understanding Complex Social Behaviors,” Political Psychology 24 (2003): 747-758.

88 Cozolino, NHR, 60; Cf. J.S. Beer, E.A. Heerey, D. Keltner, D. Scabini, and R.T. Knight, “The Regulatory Function of Self-Conscious Emotion: Insights From Patients With Orbitofrontal Damage,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85 (2003): 594-604.

90 Cozolino, NHR, 314. Cf. A. Bartels and S. Zeki, “Functional Brain Mapping During Free Viewing of Natural Scenes,” Human Brain Mapping 21 (2003): 75-83.

92 “In the intensely activated neural structures of threat, our limbic regions influence cortical reasoning and we come to believe, without a doubt, that we are right in our assessments. And ‘they’ are wrong. When the stakes are high in these intense times of tyranny and technological advance, a mindful awareness of these neural mechanisms and the reflection necessary to disengage from their automatic reactions are desperately needed. Reflection is no longer a luxury, it may be a necessity for our survival.” Siegel, The Mindful Brain, 324. Cf. D. Derryberry and M.A. Reed, “Anxiety-Related Attentional Biases and their Regulation by Attentional Control,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 111 (2002): 225-236.

94 Correlatively, spiritualities that foster shame or self-condemnation may impede the development of empathic, compassionate feeling and praxis.

96 I have found the following list of groundrules to be quite reliable for establishing relational safety in contexts of communal spiritual practices: (1) Presume welcome and extend welcome. (2) Refrain from fixing, saving, or setting straight others in the group. (3) When the interaction gets tricky, turn to inquiry rather than advocacy (wonder about something instead of defending something). (4) Ask open, honest questions. Open questions are ones to which you cannot imagine “the right answer” and which have several possible responses; honest questions are ones which do not have a hidden agenda. (5) Speak for yourself (this will require listening to yourself). (6) Think of silence as another member of the group. (7) Observe confidentiality regarding material shared in the group. Adapted from Carla M. Dahl, “Guidelines for Group Interaction in Marriage and Family Therapy Courses and Formation Experiences” (St. Paul, MN: Bethel Seminary, 2003).

98 Cozolino, NHR, 304.

100 www.miwrc.org. Talking circles may be practiced in slightly different ways in different contexts; my description indicates the way it is often practiced at MIWRC.

102 Mark Umbreit, “Talking Circles,” article written for the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (University of Minnesota, Aug. 2003), http://rjp.umn.edu/Copy_of_Restorative_Justice_Princples.html (accessed December 7, 2007).

104 For example, in his Terror and Transformation, clinical psychologist and philosopher of religion James Jones draws on the rich apophatic traditions in Christian spirituality, and presents the via negativa (the negative way of unknowing) as an important aspect of religious de-idealization and redemptive change. Terror and Transformation: The Ambiguity of Religion in Psychoanalytic Perspective (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2002). In a similar vein, psychologist Steven J. Sandage discusses the ways in which dark “crucibles” of intense spiritual negation can function as places of transformation in which one is faced with the opportunity to re-figure relationships with self, others and God in ways that “can strengthen both the security of attachment and the wholeness of differentiation.” Shults and Sandage, Transforming Spirituality, 241.

1 whose authenticity is questioned by some Theravādins, while Western feminists often too easily label Buddhism as just another patriarchal religion that is inevitably sexist and oppressive to women. More than twenty years ago, however, Rita M. Gross pointed out three similarities between Buddhism and feminism: both begin with life experiences and stress experiential understanding, both evince the will and courage to go against the grain and see beyond the conventional points of view, and both explore the ways in which habitual and conventional patterns of thinking and behaving operate to block basic well-being of people and cause great suffering.3

Classical Buddhist teachings and recent feminist theories inspired by Foucault and poststructuralism further converge on the constructedness of individuals. One of the most widely known and possibly the most perplexing teachings of Buddhism is the teaching of Non-Self (Pāli: anattā; Sanskrit: anātman), which seems to categorically negate the existence of individual persons and thereby deny the efficacy or necessity of moral actions taken by individual persons. Coincidentally, one of the contemporary feminist theories that draw the most critical attention is the theory of the social constructedness of the subject with its concomitant negation of complete autonomy. Yet Buddhism, especially early Buddhism and Theravāda Buddhism, places much emphasis on self-control and individual moral responsibility, which is reflected in the Buddhist teachings regarding kamma. And contemporary feminist theorists argue the lack of autonomy does not dissolve moral agency. The consonance between these two strains of thought is more than just intellectually stimulating. They provide an exegetical framework as well as a basis of critique for one another. The Buddhist teaching of Non-Self may be easier to comprehend with the assistance of the feminist analysis of the constructedness of gender identity, which has been curiously overlooked in the traditional discourses of Buddhism, a tradition “so dedicated to noticing and reflecting on habitual patterns of conventional ego.”5 The Buddhist teaching of anattā negates “Attā” (or, in Sanskrit, “Ātman”) only in the sense of eternal, never-changing, independently-existing innermost “Self-Essence” of all beings. In the Upanişads this is identical with Brāhman, the permanently existing Ultimate Reality (Sanskrit: sat), Pure Consciousness (Sanskrit: chit) and Bliss (Sanskrit: ananda). This eternalist view of “Self” is also called a “pernicious view,”7 — that the Buddha refutes. The Buddha’s teaching of Non-Self is frequently summarized in the Nikāya-s in these two succinct sentences: “What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is not attā.”9 Nicholas F. Gier and Paul Kjellberg put it this way: “You wouldn’t be the person you are if your family, friends, and acquaintances all weren’t the people they are, if you hadn’t had the experiences you’ve had, lived in the society you live in, and so on.”11 Individual persons co-arise with, and are contingent on, their surroundings, and therefore do not exist as unchanging, permanent, blissful pure consciousness that is separate from, and independent of, worldly phenomena.

While rejecting both of the extremes of nihilism and eternalism, in the early texts the Buddha seemed to be more concerned with refuting the eternalist view than the nihilist view. The eternalist “Self” was compared to a lump of foam on a river, a water bubble during rain, a mirage, a plantain trunk, and a magical illusion.13 All of these views are called “identity views” because they are considered conducive to, and reinforcing, egocentric clinging. They lead to unsatisfactoriness or outright suffering (Pāli: dukkha; Sanskrit: duhkha).

The meaning and scope of the Five Aggregated have to be understood to see the subtleties of the teaching of Non-Self and the ways in which this teaching is highly morally demanding. In the classical Buddhist understanding, an individual person is understood in terms of the Five Aggregates: the entity we consider “self” is a psycho-physical compound of material forms (Pāli/Sanskrit: rūpa), sensations (Pāli/Sanskrit: vedanā), perceptions (Pāli: saññā; Sanskrit: samjñā), volitional constructions (Pāli: saņkhāra; Sanskrit: samskāra), and consciousness (Pāli: viññāņa; Sanskrit: vijñāņa). David J. Kalupahana expounds, “Rūpa or material form accounts for the function of identification; vedanāor feeling and saññāor perception represent the function of experience, emotive as well as cognitive; saņkhāraor disposition stands for the function of individuation; viññāņaor consciousness explains the function of continuity in experience.”15: that which can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and felt, and that which can be cognized. With mind being considered a sense organ, virtually all phenomena in the world can be considered the “external sense bases” for the mind. Virtually all phenomena in the world can be considered mind-objects since they can all be processed in one way or another by the mind. Colors, for example, are objects for the eyes, and yet the difference between two colors may be an object for the mind. Thus considered, “external sense bases” encompasses not only concrete objects with physical dimensions, but also abstract entities without physical dimensions, such as languages, philosophies, histories, social conventions, cultural norms, political institutions, and the sentiments involved in interpersonal relationships in the past, the present, or the future.17 On account of the references to “things that are put together, constructed, and compounded,” saņkhāra is translated as “mental formations” or “mental proliferations;” on account of the references to “things which put together, construct, and compound other things,” the same word is rendered “dispositions” or “volitions.” A person’s disposition and volition both result from the things that have been put together and affect the ways in which things are being put together. In other words, one’s dispositions and volition shape the ways in which one’s thoughts are formed, and the thoughts formed in turn mold one’s dispositions and volition.

Corresponding to and co-arising with the six senses and their respective sense-objects are six classes of sensation, six classes of perception, six classes of volitional constructions, and six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, and mind-consciousness.19 In this passage the term nāma is used to refer to the Aggregates other than rūpa and consciousness, i.e. sensations, perceptions, and volitional constructions. Sometimes, however, it seems that nāma encompasses only sensations and perceptions, for in the “Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination” volitional constructions are discussed separately from nāma-rūpa: “With ignorance as condition, volitional constructions come to be; with volitional constructions as condition, consciousness comes to be; with consciousness as condition, nāma-rūpa comes to be…”21 Saņkhāra can put together existing sense-objects to form new mind-objects that are prior-to-now non-existent in the socio-cultural realm, and then the newly formed mind-objects are fed to consciousness just as the existing mind-objects are. One’s consciousness, in turn, affects the ways in which s/he senses and perceives rūpa, thereby also affecting the mental formations to come. That is, besides the material and symbolic forces that one is exposed to (rūpa), one’s consciousness is also influenced by the functioning of one’s nāma, especially saņkhāra. The constructive aspect of saņkhāra accounts for individuation. It accounts for the fact that people exposed to the same rūpa do not necessarily have the same personality or consciousness.23 A person may be consistently prompted with a certain consciousness and identify with it for a certain period of time, and then may choose, or be prompted by further life experiences, to identify with a different consciousness some time later.

The Buddhist theory of the Five Aggregates points to the conditionality of personhood. An individual person is, and continues to be, a product of socio-cultural conditionings and his/her life experiences, the latter being affected by his/her own dispositions/volition/mental formations. A person as such is socially constructed as well as mentally constructed. Traditional Buddhist discourses elaborate abundantly on the process of mental construction but somehow come short in explicating the sociality of existence and its implications. Human existence is always social, and to be a person is to become a person in a matrix of social forces. What one holds onto as the identity of the self does not come into existence without the material and symbolic forces that have been suggesting and reinforcing it. An identity as such is not permanent and does not stay static. It is subject to change, and it changes when new experiences arise or when new situations prompt new ways of putting together old experiences. The Buddhist teaching of Non-Self, at least in its classical sense, merely denies the idea of permanently-existing, never-changing individual self-essence that is abstractly defined (by the most privileged stratum in society) and uninfluenced by worldly phenomena or day-to-day experiences. In the next section, I will further illustrate the meaning and social implications of the Buddhist teaching of Non-Self, of seeing an individual person as a process, by looking at the constructedness of gender identity.

Seeing “Non-Self” through the Making of Gender Identity

As Gross observes, there is something curiously illogical in many Buddhists’ understanding and acceptance of the central Buddhist teaching of Non-Self: “while most Buddhist do not believe in the existence of a permanent, abiding self, their attitudes and actions nevertheless indicate that they do believe in the real existence of gender.”25 or defensively denying and willfully ignoring the persistent gender discrimination, gender stereotypes, and rigid assignment of gender roles in both of the voluminous traditional Buddhist texts and the day-to-day operation of Buddhist institutions.27 The central teaching of Non-Self, the lack of eternal, unchanging, self-existing essence, is invoked from time to time in response to various kinds of contentions and disputes, but it is rarely remembered when conventional gender roles are described, expected, and even imposed.

That is, theoretically, the Buddhist Dhamma transcends gender. In everyday life, however, it often seems it is gender that transcends the Dhamma, for the Dhamma is supposed to cover every aspect of Reality/Existence but somehow is hardly ever applied to gender. This reluctance to acknowledging the existence of gender discrimination within the Buddhist traditions, Gross rightly notes, “is a more destructive and dangerous form of opposition to gender equality than outright opposition to egalitarian reforms,”29

Gender is produced through repeated bodily performances of the cultural scripts that define masculinity and femininity. Since the beginning of their existence in human societies, people are systematically inculcated with, and disciplined to perform, certain behaviors and roles that are supposedly appropriate for their anatomical characteristics. The compulsory repetition of bodily performances of gender norms has a materializing effect and “congeal[s] over time,” for the gender norms repeatedly performed by the body are thereby inscribed on the body, which is an integral part of a person’s self-identity. Since gender norms are inscribed on the body and thus become part of the person, gender is not like an outfit that can be taken off at will. That is, gender is not something that can be undone or changed with just one alternative performance because it is not created once and for all with one socially-prescribed performance. Still, gender “has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality,”31

Some colors are associated with, and used on, girls, while some other colors are associated with and used on boys. It is very common, in the United States at least, for people to put baby boys in blue clothes and bassinets, and baby girls, in pink. When I was a child in Taiwan, the colors red, pink, and orange were commonly considered as “girly colors,” while the colors green and blue were called “boyish colors.”

Children learn their gendered identities through toys as well. Girls are still commonly given dolls or items of sedentary and domestic nature to play with, while boys are often encouraged to play with toy cars, trains, airplanes, tanks, guns, robots equipped with weapons, and generally items that are mobile and/or destructive. Supposedly girls do not like to move about, and supposedly they like to play house, imagining being wives and mothers and enjoying the imaginary cleaning, cooking, and taking care of other members in the family.

The assignment of household chores is frequently gendered as well, if boys are expected to do chores at all. In Taiwan and other Chinese societies, some parents expect only girls to help out with chores, while some others train their boys to perform tasks that require a little more physical strength, such as mopping the floor. In the United States, in families that do expect both boys and girls to do household chores, girls are more likely to be assigned more “domestic” chores such as tasks in the kitchen or tasks related to caring and nurturing, while boys are more likely to be expected to take on chores of higher mobility such as taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, shoveling the snow, etc.33 The perceptions of “lady-like” postures, however, vary across cultures and generations, too. For instance, Chinese and Taiwanese girls have also been taught to be “lady-like,” but people of older generations consider it impolite, for both males and females, to sit with their legs crossed.35 The association between a certain gender and a certain group of colors, for example, is culturally and historically variable. At earlier times in Chinese culture, the color red was associated with good fortune and was certainly used on wealthy men. My mother, however, gets intensely uncomfortable with my brother wearing red, and so do most of the Taiwanese and Chinese people of her and her parents’ generations because the color red had been associated with the female gender. In fact, once in a Buddhist temple in Philadelphia I was lectured by a Chinese woman somewhat older than my mother that I should wear more pink and red instead of black. “Wearing black makes one look like a guy, and wearing red makes one look like a girl,” she said, completely oblivious to the fact that, at that moment, I was sitting right next to a Tibetan monk who, like most Tibetans, favors the color red and wears red all the time. Among the colors that were called “girly colors” when I was little, my brother is comfortable with red and orange, but not pink. The Taiwanese men of an even younger generation, by contrast, no longer consider the color pink off-limits.

That gender is a set of conditioned acts becomes especially salient when two persons of the same biological gender in the same society can be conditioned to perceive and act out their gender in different ways due to their different economic or social classes. Some of my better-to-do female friends in Taiwan habitually buy clothes that are pleasing to their eyes but may be inconvenient for their everyday bodily motions, and they often attribute that habit of choosing beauty over functionality to the “natural” dictates of their female gender. My mother and some other women who have had to perform physical labor to make a living, by contrast, do not appreciate the kind of clothes that would limit their bodily motions or make them too self-conscious when they toil. Besides, their limited resources have accustomed them to opt for the type of clothes that allow them to function throughout the whole day. That is, they do not really pay much attention to separating work clothes from fun clothes, or sportswear from sleepwear, for they have neither the money nor the energy to buy and maintain all those different clothes for such different occasions.

Like upper-class women, lower-class women may attempt to mimic what they see in mass media, which all too often broadcast Euro-American Caucasian beauty standards, including fashions and the body type that is used to demonstrate those fashions. As a result, along with trendy attires, they may consider white skin to be more feminine and more beautiful, which is reflected in the plethora of skin-whitening cosmetic products on the market throughout East Asia. For women laborers, however, the demand of functionality and low maintenance usually outweighs the concern for the “feminine beauty” defined by the Western-dominated global market culture. After all, for women in subtropical areas who do not work indoors, Caucasian-like white skin is extremely high maintenance, if not utterly unattainable. Likewise, women laborers may conform to other societal gender expectations for females in Taiwan, such as being soft and yielding to (male) authority figures. But the reality of their working-class life has generally trained them to be tough and to tackle most tasks by themselves, including lifting heavy objects, for which most of my better-to-do female friends would predictably enlist help from men.

Neither the choice of “feminine” clothes nor the habitual recourse to men’s help is the inalterable substance of the female gender.37 Contained in the Buddha’s teaching is a call to critically reexamine the assumptions about the self-existent, unchanging qualities of social groups, especially when those qualities have been defined, prescribed, and propagated by the social group that is currently occupying the uppermost rung of the social hierarchy. The same kind of critical reexamination can and should be applied to the social grouping of genders. Gendered identity, like class identity, is conditioned, subject to change, and in lack of self-essence.

Subject Formation and Cultural Delimitation

It is noteworthy that the word rūpa, besides denoting mind and mind-objects, does refer to the material circumstances and the physical makeup of individual persons. Societal norms and cultural conventions surely provide abundant sense-objects for the mind, which is the most powerful amongst the six sense organs. Yet a person cannot relate to the world without a physical body (part of rūpa), and the matrix of socio-cultural norms and conventions (also part of rūpa) have already prescribed the proper ways of interacting with a body. They have in fact circumscribed the meanings of a body. That is, as much as a person’s contact with his/her socio-cultural world is mediated through his/her body, his/her body can play a crucial role in forming his/her consciousness and self-identity. In addition, the bodily features and functions themselves may also serve as objects for the mind, which means that, according to the analysis of the Five Aggregates, the physical makeup of a person may affect his/her personality and consciousness (or, more precisely, consciousness-es). At the same time, though, each person has developed his/her own way of putting things together (saņkhāra) and therefore the same bodily functions do not necessarily fuel the same consciousnesses (and different bodily functions do not necessarily fuel different consciousnesses). In other words, it is the co-arising and interconditionality of physical existence, social constructs, and mental constructs that accounts for an individual.

One must live in society dependent on a physical body, and one can only apprehend body and materiality through the conventions in one’s society, particularly the conventional treatments of the type of body one has. One learns through societal views and expectations how to perceive one’s body, and to like it, or hate it, or attach meanings to it, or alter the appearance of it, in the hope of measuring up to societal standards. In the framework of the Five Aggregates, the body is acknowledged as a constituent of a person, although it does not necessarily determine a person. It is because of a body that one can live and think and function in a society, and it is because of this particular body that exists in this particular socio-cultural environment in this particular time that one is conditioned to live and think and function in these particular ways.

The values and norms of a society often seem natural or normal to its subjects precisely because those values and norms have been inscribed on the bodies of the subjects. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault draws on Jeremy Bentham’s concept of panopticon and delineates the ways in which the socio-cultural norms, which vary from culture to culture and greatly depend on the dominating power, become such a seemingly integral part of a person that they are simply considered normal or even “natural.” Through a series of apparently innocent subtle arrangements concerning details in life,39 to exert their disciplinary powers in different aspects of people’s lives. Individuals are incessantly watched and disciplined to conform to the norms that, once recognized as such, make further societal disciplines easy and invisible. Thus the gazes of power are internalized, “automatic docility”41 Any individual, from the “beginning” of one’s life, or even before it, is configured by the language that carries conventionally-established concepts and collectively-recognized meanings, by the historical usages of that language, and by the socio-cultural circumstances in which that language has been used.

The concepts, meanings, usages, and socio-cultural circumstances reflected in that language are formed as a result of, in Butler’s word, sedimentation. In the same way that sediments of earth are formed because a large amount of sand is repeatedly brought over by water to the same place and allowed to accumulate and solidify, socio-cultural conventions are formed because people are acting and reacting in certain ways over and over again. A particular social convention, such as dressing baby girls in pink or allowing boys to be disruptive and aggressive, is in place because people repeat it, generation after generation, though not entirely without variation. Being able to function and be recognized as a functioning subject in any society necessarily means carrying the weight of the tradition and internalizing to a large extent those sedimentations of that society.43 Language constitutes the persons who use it in the sense that it suggests and promotes a certain way of thinking of the self and relating to each other as well as to the larger society.

In Buddhist terms, as the rūpa for the mind, socio-cultural conventions supply the raw materials from which the consciousnesses of the individuals embedded in those conventions are made. Different people may “put together” (saņkhāra) the rūpa in different ways and thus may have different dispositions and may further choose to continue putting things together in those ways. That is, the rūpa do not determine the individual consciousnesses and socio-cultural conventions do not determine the ways in which people think and perceive their environment and relate to each other. Yet the rūpa does limit the possibilities of the ways in which individual consciousnesses take shape. With the raw material of iron, one may make a chair or a weapon, but the possibility of making ceramics is precluded. Thus Butler contends, “The one who acts…acts precisely to the extent that he or she is constituted as an actor and, hence, operating within a linguistic field of enabling constraints from the outset.”45 The ways in which one thinks, speaks and acts are, and always will be, conditioned by the material and socio-cultural circumstances, and in this regard one does not have an eternal, changeless “Self” that is above, or operating independently of, the matrix of rūpa in which one is embedded. Both personhood and identity are processes and are in continuous construction and reconstruction.



Works Cited

Primary Sources

Dialogues of the Buddha, Vols. 2 and 3, translated from the Pāli of the Dīgha Nikāya by Thomas William Rhys Davids and Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids. London: Pāli Text Society, 1956-1966.

The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, translated from the Pāli by Maurice Walshe. Boston, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 1995.
Further Dialogues of the Buddha, translated from the Pāli of the Majjhima Nikāya by Lord Chalmers. London: Pāli Text Society, 1956-1966.

The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, 2nd edition, translated by Bhikkhu Ñāņamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 2001.

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikāya, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Boston, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 2002.

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: Pāli Text, Translation and Explanatory Guide of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha, 1st BPS Pariyatti edition, Pāli text originally edited and translated by Mahāthera Nārada, translation revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi, introduction and explanatory guide by U Rewata Dhamma and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Abhidhamma tables by U Sīlānanda. Onalaska, Washington: Pariyatti Press, 2000.

Secondary Sources


Adair, Wendi L., Tetsushi Okumura, and Jeanne M. Brett. “Negotiation Behavior When Cultures Collide: The United States and Japan.” Journal of Applied Psychology 86.3 (June 2001): 371-385.

Alcoff, Linda Martín. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” In Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, edited by Judith Roof and Robyn Wregman, pp. 97-119. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Arunachalam, Vairam, James A. Wall, Jr., and Chris Chan. “Hong Kong Versus U.S. Negotiations: Effects of Culture, Alternatives, Outcome Scales, and Mediation.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 28.14 (1998): 1219-1244.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

___. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Daly, Herman E., and John B. Cobb, Jr. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1989.

Duncan, Simon, and B. Pfau-Effinger, eds. Gender, Economy and Culture in the European Union. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Eisenstein, Zillah R. “Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and Socialist Feminism.” In Capitalist Patriarchy: The Case for Socialist Feminism, edited by Zillah R. Eisenstein, pp. 5-40. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1979.

Faure, Bernard. The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Forsberg, Gunnel. “The Difference That Space Makes: A Way to Describe the Construction of Local and Regional Gender Contracts.” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift-Norwegian Journal of Geography 55: 161-165.

Foucault, Michél. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, 2nd edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Gier, Nicholas F., and Paul Kjellberg. “Buddhism and the Freedom of the Will: Pali and Mahayanist Responses.” In Freedom and Determinism, edited by Joseph Keim Campbell, Michael O’Rourke, and David Shier, pp. 277-304. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2004.

Gross, Rita M. “Buddhism and Feminism: Toward Their Mutual Transformation.” Eastern Buddhist 19, Nos. 1 and 2 (Spring 1986): 44-58 and 62-74.

___. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993.

___. “The Dharma of Gender.” Contemporary Buddhism 5.1 (May 2004): 3-13.

Hall, Edward Twitchell. Beyond Culture. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1976.

Harvey, Peter. “The Mind-Body Relationship in Pali Buddhism: A Philosophical Investigation.” Asian Philosophy 3.1 (March 1993): 29-41.

Hofstede, Geert, and Michael Harris Bond. “The Confucius Connection: From Cultural Roots to Economic Growth.” Organizational Dynamics 16.4 (Spring 1988): 5-21.

Holmes, Prue. “Problematising Intercultural Communication Competence in the Pluricultural Classroom: Chinese Students in a New Zealand University.” Language and Intercultural Communication 6.1 (2006): 18-34.

Kalupahana, David J. The Principles of Buddhist Psychology. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Kumar, Rajesh. “Communicative Conflict in Intercultural Negotiations: The Case of American and Japanese Business Negotiations.” International Negotiation 4.1 (1999): 63-78.

Lee, Kam-hon, Guang Yang, and John L. Graham. “Tension and Trust in International Business Negotiations: American Executives Negotiating with Chinese Executives.” Journal of International Business Studies 37 (2006): 623-641.

Levering, Miriam L. “The Dragon Girl and the Abbess of Mo-Shan: Gender and Status in the Ch’an Buddhist Tradition.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 5. 1 (1982): 19-35.

Macy, Joanna. Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Marcoux, Jean-Sébastien. “Body Exchanges: Material Culture, Gender and Stereotypes in the Making.” Home Cultures 1.1 (2004): 51-60.

Markus, Hazel Rose, and Shinobu Kitayama. “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion and Motivation.” Psychological Review 98.2 (1991): 224-253.

McClintock, Sara. “Gendered Bodies of Illusion: Finding a Somatic Method in the Ontic Madness of Emptiness.” In Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars, edited by Roger R. Jackson and John J. Makransky, pp. 261-274. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 2000.

Mead, Margaret. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Morrow, 1935.

Mrozik, Susanne. “Materialization of Virtue: Buddhist Discourses on Bodies.” In Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler, edited by Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St. Ville, pp. 15-47. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Peach, Lucinda Joy. “Social Responsibility, Sex Change, and Salvation: Gender Justice in the Lotus Sūtra.” Philosophy East and West 52.1 (January 2002): 50-74.

Saddhatissa, Hammalawa. Buddhist Ethics. Boston, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 1997.

Schuster, Nancy. “Changing the Female Body: Wise Women and the Bodhisattva Career in Some Mahāratnakūtasūtras.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4.1 (1981): 24-69.

Sponberg, Alan. “Attitudes Toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism.” In Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by José Ignacio Cabezón, pp. 3-36. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Stoller, Robert. Presentations of Gender. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. “Family, Monastery, and Gender Justice: Reenvisioning Buddhist Institutions.” In Buddhist Women and Social Justice: Ideals, Challenges, and Achievements, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, pp. 1-19. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Young, Iris Marion. “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality.” In The Thinking Muse: Feminism and Modern French Philosophers, edited by Jeffner Allen and Iris Marion Young, pp. 51-70. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989.




2 Rita M. Gross, “Buddhism and Feminism: Toward Their Mutual Transformation, Part I,” Eastern Buddhist 19.1 (Spring 1986): 47-49; Rita M. Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 157.

4 Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy, pp. 128 and 158; “Buddhism and Feminism,” 49-50; “The Dharma of Gender,” 6.

6 Samyutta Nikāya III.99 and 182-183 (Khandhasamyutta), 204-205 (Diţţhisamyutta). See also Majjhima Nikāya i.130-131 (Alagaddūpama Sutta) and i.256-257 (Mahātaņhāsankhaya Sutta).

8 For examples, see Samyutta Nikāya III.22 and 45 (Khandhasamyutta).

10 Gier and Kjellberg, “Buddhism and the Freedom of the Will,” p. 291.

12 Samyutta Nikāya III.140-143 (Khandhasamyutta).

14 David J. Kalupahana, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1987), pp. 20-21.

16 In the Pāli Abhidhamma, six kinds of objects are considered mental objects: sensitive matter, subtle matter, consciousness, mental factors, Nibbāna, and concepts. While the consciousnesses of the other five sense organs pertain only to the present, the mind-consciousness can cognize an object of the past, the present, or the future. See A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: Pāli Text, Translation and Explanatory Guide of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha, 1st BPS Pariyatti edition, Pāli text originally edited and translated by Mahāthera Nārada, translation revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi, introduction and explanatory guide by U Rewata Dhamma and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Abhidhamma tables by U Sīlānanda (Onalaska, Washington: Pariyatti Press, 2000), pp. 135-7.

18 For examples, see Samyutta Nikāya III.60-61, 63-64, 102-103 (Khandhasamyutta).

20 For examples, see Samyutta Nikāya II.28, 70, 78, and 95 (Nidānasamyutta). Bhikkhu Bodhi explains, “only when consciousness is present can a compound of material elements function as a sentient body and the mental concomitants participate in cognition.” Bhikkhu Bodhi, “General Introduction,” in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 48. Alternatively, nāma is understood by some to include consciousness as well. For example, Therāvadin scholar Hammalawa Saddhatissa asserts, “nāma-rūpa should be understood as the particularity or determinate character of individual things” and can be used as a synonym for individual beings. Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics (Boston, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications, 1997), pp. 5-6. In the early Upanişads, the term nāma-rūpa is used to refer to the things of common experiences, as opposed to the Absolute Reality of Brāhman.

22 It is doubtful that any two persons are ever exposed to the exact same rūpa. Two siblings growing up in the same family, for example, are not necessarily treated in the same way by their parents, and they certainly do not treat each other in the same way they are treated by each other. This goes beyond the scope of this paper.

24 Gross, “The Dharma of Gender,” 4.

26 Ibid., 7. It is not uncommon for Buddhist communities to divide needed labor and volunteer work along gender lines and, in effect, impose and reinforce stereotypical gender attributes. Alan Sponberg finds that the “soteriological inclusiveness” in early Buddhism is compounded with “institutional androcentrism” and “ascetic misogyny.” Alan Sponberg, “Attitudes Toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism,” in Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by José Ignacio Cabezón (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 3-36. Susanne Mrozik also notes that in the South Asian Buddhist traditions virtues are still strongly associated with the male body, despite the talk about the “ultimate” irrelevance of bodily distinctions. Susanne Mrozik, “Materialization of Virtue: Buddhist Discourses on Bodies,” in Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler, edited by Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St. Ville (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), pp. 34-5.

28 Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy, p. 117; “The Dharma of Gender,” 11. Similar concerns are shown by Mrozik in “Materialization of Virtue,” p. 35; Tsomo in “Family, Monastery, and Gender Justice,” p. 2; Sara McClintock in “Gendered Bodies of Illusion: Finding a Somatic Method in the Ontic Madness of Emptiness,” in Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars, edited by Roger R. Jackson and John J. Makransky (Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 2000), p. 261; and Faure, The Power of Denial, pp. 119-42.

30 Ibid., p. 173.

32 The gendered assignment of household chores not only suggests the division of genders and reinforces gender roles, but also affords the male gender more physical mobility and financial resources since childhood: boys can earn some pocket money by mowing the lawn or shoveling the snow for their neighbors, but no one would really hire girls in the neighborhood to do the dishes. Even when girls and women are hired as maids for household maintenance, their contributions are commonly deemed less valuable and, as a result, they may work longer hours and still earn less money. “A sexual division of labor,” Zillah Eisenstein observes, “…divides men and women into their respective hierarchical sex roles and structures their related duties in the family domain and within the economy.” Zillah Eisenstein, “Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and Socialist Feminism,” in Capitalist Patriarchy: The Case for Socialist Feminism, edited by Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1979), p. 27.

34 In fact, one of the unwritten but much reinforced internal rules of the Taiwan-based International Tzu-Chi (Compassionate Relief) Foundation is that no volunteer, male or female, may sit with their legs crossed if they are wearing the Tzu-Chi uniform. That unwritten rule was laid down by Master Chengyen herself.

36 In a ethnographical study on moving in Montréal that deliberately leaves out the factor of social class, Jean-Sébastien Marcoux finds that handling heavy objects is often done by men in a paternalistic manner and so in effect becomes a privilege of men and boys, while most of the work relegated to women, such as sorting, packing, and cleaning, is unappreciated. He also finds that this gendered division of tasks is developed and reinforced relationally — while women tend to either voluntarily stay away from, or be intimidated out of, physical tasks in the presence of men, they, especially younger ones, do not hesitate to handle heavy objects in the absence of men. Jean-Sébastien Marcoux, “Body Exchanges: Material Culture, Gender and Stereotypes in the Making,” Home Cultures Vol. 1, Issue 1 (2004): 51-60.

38 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, 2nd edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 139.

40 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 169.

42 Coincidentally, in explaining the “grammar” of the market, Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr. also make a similar reference to language: “Individuals are free to try to communicate in whatever ways they wish. But to succeed they have to conform to certain community conventions. The result is not a Tower of Babel, but an amazingly well-ordered structure, as is evident in the grammar of any language. No one designed a language, not even the French Academy. Yet language has an order and logic that would appear to have been the product of rational planning.” See Daly and Cobb, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 44.

44 Butler, Excitable Speech, p. 16. Likewise, feminist scholar Linda Martín Alcoff likewise remarks, “the options available to us are socially constructed, and the practices we engage in cannot be understood as simply the results of autonomous individual choice.” Linda Martín Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” in Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, edited by Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995), p. 101.