Science, Semiotics and the Sacred

Science, Semiotics and the Sacred

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Our principal benefactor at Metanexus Institute is John Templeton, the 90-year-old visionary mutual funds manager of significant fame and accomplishment.  Templeton is fond of using the term “new spiritual information” to describe the purpose of his philanthropic work in science and religion.  With the explosion of information in the 20th century, the use of the term “spiritual information” might well lead one to further despair in the face of ever more unread books, magazines, and emails.  When people complain about “information overload,” the metaphor of “spiritual information” may well carry negative connotations for many.  And yet Templeton’s seemingly idiosyncratic advocacy of this term — new spiritual information — goes to the heart of a profound epistemological and ontological shift in the sciences today and allows the recovery of ancient insights from our received religious traditions.

Many religions have understood language to be in some way primordial to the material constitution of the Universe.  In Hinduism, the Upanishads talk of a primal word, Om, which functions as the creative source of all Nature.  In Jewish Midrash, the grammatical ambiguity of the first line of Genesis and the extravagant linguistic creativity of Elohim, leads to philosophical speculation about a pre-existent Torah, which God uses to speak reality into being.  In Medieval Judaism, this Rabbinic tradition gave rise to the wild speculations and philosophical subtleties of the Kabbalah.  The Greeks, including Plato, drew upon Heraclitus’ notion of logos, viewing the embodied word as that fire which animated and ruled the world, to explain their understanding of primeval, material language. In the Gospel of John, Christians celebrate this Word or Logos in a radical incarnationalist vision of a Cosmic Christ in whom and through whom all things come into being.  Language, the spoken word and the written word, was the ultimate medium for creation, revelation, and redemption.  Every time we communicate, we participate in a miracle of ultimate significance, or at least so our ancestors intuited.

Modern humans, informed by science, live in a universe that is more enriched with awesome subtleties and gorgeous details than our ancestors could have possibly imagined.   Paradoxically though, our universe seems also to be more spiritually impoverished than that of traditional peoples.   This new universe as understood by modern science seems to import a concomitant loss of significance, meaning, and purpose in our lives.  Here Templeton’s advocacy of the constructive engagement of science and religion in general, and advancing new spiritual information in particular, goes to the heart of intellectual history and the unfolding of our cosmic future.

The modern metaphysics of science takes space-time and matter-energy to be fundamental.  To this we add the four nuclear forces, the laws of thermodynamics, some algorithmic processes, an element of randomness, and presto we have the universe built from the bottom-up that science has been so successful at explaining and describing from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic in all its stunning complexity. The oddity in all of this new talk of information from scientists is that information does not fit into that 20th century paradigm.  For instance, information is immaterial.  It is not a thing you can point to, but a no-thing that must be metaphorically “read” by some-things, which some-things are apparently constituted by the no-thing in a fine-piece of circular logic.  An ontology and epistemology that looks only to materialism and reductionism for its explanations of phenomena will have a hard time explaining information itself.  Ironically, the very pursuit of this materialist and reductionist paradigm has led to its supervenience, but the character and nuances of this new metaphysical vision have barely been explored.

In physics, we now talk about the information states of quantum phenomena.  In cosmology, we speculate about a pre-existent mathematical order, through which the cosmos unfolds.  Challenge a hard-nose, reductionistic physicist about their mathematics and you’re likely to find a soft-hearted Neo-Platonist. 

With the genomic revolution, biologists now also talk about information residing at the center of life processes.  In cellular signal transduction the genomic word becomes living flesh.  Though species come and go in the evolutionary epic, much of the genomic memory of the past is retained in contemporary genomes.  As new evolutionary niches are explored, the figurative becomes literal, as new species are reconfigured into new emergent possibilities, adding new chapters to the “book of life”.

The neurosciences today see the brain as an information processing system.  While no doubt beautiful to the discerning eye of a scientist, a single neuron is rather dumb.  A hundred billion neurons in the human brain, however, wired in a massively parallel system, become potentially the most complex entity in the universe.  The neurons fire in on and off states through the synaptic media to mediate every human experience and memory.  Laying down neural networks is another way of talking about encoding information, as the inside informational world of the brain maps with the outside informational world of nature, culture, and cosmos.

This new metaphysical movement in the sciences has largely been mediated by the computer as both tool and metaphor.  Among diverse scientific disciplines, the real scientific revolution in the last decades of the 20th century has been the ability to collect and analyze large datasets and to further manipulate these datasets through powerful computer simulations.  Computers provide not just the tools for new scientific discoveries, but also the new metaphors that now also dominate scientific discourse (e.g., algorithms, binary code, hardware, and software, all are terms that have traveled widely outside the domains of the computer sciences).  Computational finitude, however, also points towards a complexity horizon that may thwart our unbridled desires for controlling and predictive knowledge.  The universe may be a single database, but it is so profoundly relational that the easy hackings of the codes by earlier science may soon be exhausted. 

Of course, I am using the terms “language” and “information” to be in some sense analogous.  It is worth noting that the greatest contemporary philosophers of science are compelled to also become philosophers of language (cross reference any introductory anthology in the two fields and you will note philosophers like Frege, Hempel, Quine, Searle, and Putnam appearing on both sides of the ledger).  A little philosophical detour may help to illuminate the connection between language and information, in our search to recover and discover something new of the spiritual center of our lives and the universe. 

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, credited as the founder of modern linguistics, distinguishes between language as langue and language as parole.  Langue is the code, grammar, and structure of any particular language.  Parole is the meaning of any particular speaker in a context specific situation of a particular message.  Linguistics as a science can illuminate langue, because it is collective and objective, in ways that particular utterances may be confoundingly context specific.  Today scholars would substitute the terms semiotics and semantics, and broaden the inquiry beyond “natural” human languages to include all kinds of communicative actions from art and advertising to abstract concepts and entire ideologies.  Semiotics is the code of communication and semantics is the informational content or meaning of particular communications.  Of course, the codes of languages evolve over time through specific semantic histories, so Saussure’s radical distinction between semiotics and semantics cannot be maintained as we look at the evolution of human languages over time.  This realization has led to the ascendancy a kind of philosophical relativism within linguistic today which views the semiotics of thought as arbitrary and always derived from a specific social and historical situations.  There is no simple correspondence between human language and objective realities.

The philosophy of science has also witnessed a similar move from a simple correspondence theory of sciences as Truth, referred to as positivism, to a much more nuanced and contextual understanding of science as temporarily reliable interpretations of truths.  While Karl Popper’s falsification theory of science may inspire the bench scientist of the epistemological purity of their endeavors, W.V. Quine, Arthur Fine, Thomas Kuhn, Hilary Putnam, and others have thoroughly demolished this understanding of science as an epistemologically privileged endeavor.  The dilemma now becomes accounting for the progressive and practical efficaciousness of science, in spite of the social and historical construction of science.

Templeton points the way out of this philosophical incoherence in science and linguistics, when he suggests that language as information may somehow be constitutive of the ultimate nature of reality, as is implied by using the adjective “spiritual” to modify the noun “information”.  Let’s see how this might work and what some of the consequences might be.

Modern humans have tended to understand that we alone of the species of the world possess language, that language is unique to our brain structures and cultural possibilities.   In a developmental context, human culture must teach every human infant anew how to speak, listen, and think.  Terrence Deacon, Merlin Donald, and others have convincingly argued that human languages must reside in an “immaterial” cultural space between individual human mind-brains.  The human infant’s brain is capable of learning language, but there is no genetic or developmental necessity that they become linguistically competent.  In those tragic cases when a human infant is deprived of social and linguistic stimulation, they become permanently mentally retarded.  In this contemporary understanding of the developmental neurophysiology of human language, language really is “out there”, almost in a Neo-Platonic sense, and only comes to temporarily reside “in here” in our mind-brains.  Indeed, in the strong sense, language recreates our mind-brains.

In an evolutionary context of human development over the last two million years, we might rather say that nature teaches our species to speak, listen, and think, because nature is already pregnant with linguistic meanings and patterns “out there” which thankfully have the potential to map onto the “in here” realities of our mind-brain-cultures.  In that sense, human language is derived from the more-than-human world of nature in the relational spaces between our species and the rest of creation. 

The moment that we ground human language in a semiotically constituted and semantically rich cosmos, than we have solved the problem incoherence that troubles contemporary philosophy of science and philosophy of language.  Our human languages build upon the many languages of nature.  Indeed, this intelligibility of nature by human language is the precondition for science, so in one sense this is only to reaffirm the realist aspirations of science, even while seeking to reclaim the romantic motivations of science as a spiritual quest. 

In this new view, science can be seen as a kind of translation project, where we try to learn the language of an alien set of phenomena and try to understand the terminology, syntax, and grammar that the phenomena authentically “speak”.  The semiotics of our scientific translations are represented in mathematical notations, diagrams, charts, and models.  Another intelligent civilization in a different corner of the galaxy might use radically different semiotics to represent these phenomenological realities, but we would expect to be able to translate, even as every human language is translatable (though something is also always lost in translation). 

Great science seems to occur most often when the scientist, like the missionary in the foreign land, “goes native.”  A good physicist dreams in the mathematics of the cosmos; a good chemist thinks within the three-dimensional bonding space of complex molecules; a good biologist has a feel for the organism.  Science might better be defined as altruistic fidelity to the phenomena, making one’s life and intellect a vehicle for some other reality to have a voice and value in our human culture, consciousness, and conscience.

This new relational linguistically centered ontology can be seen as a kind of evolutionary Neo-Platonism.  And while we gain philosophical coherence, we are also tempered with a profound sense of our finitude, another one of Templeton’s key thematic foci.  Epistemological humility in matters scientific and religious turns out to be difficult for us to maintain psychologically, because we would wish to banish cognitive dissonance and existential uncertainty from our lives.  Discovering new spiritual information is sure to be hard work, requiring patience, rigor, exertion, hope, faith, and love.  Fortunately, Templeton also points us towards the recovery of these great virtues from our religious traditions, even as he calls for us to seek progress in religion.

This new relational, information-centered ontology arising in the sciences today provides a wonderful moment for the recovery and reinterpretation of traditional religious worldviews.  Today the universe is far grander than our ancestors could have possibly imagined, but somehow they seem to have already intuited the deep spiritual informational structure of the universe through which all things come into being.

“Science, Semiotics, and the Sacred” by William Grassie was orginally published in Spiritual Information, edited by Charles L. Harper, Jr. (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press) 2005, pp 39 – 43.