Graham Pemberton
Oct 4 · 12 min read

The Sacred Depths of Nature

Image by RÜŞTÜ BOZKUŞ from Pixabay

On many points “the great scientific theories have lapsed. The more sophisticated the theories, the more inadequate they are. This is a reason to cherish them. They have enlarged and not diminished our sense of the sublime”. (David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion, Preface)

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This article is the latest in a series on the theme of whether we can find a new mythology, a common vision, to unite humanity in an attempt to solve the world’s problems. (For a guide to all the articles, click here.) I am currently discussing some thinkers who are trying to create such a mythology from the worldview and findings of (what they perceive to be) science. In earlier articles I’ve discussed Steven Pinker, David Christian, and Julian Huxley. I’m now going to turn my attention to biologist Ursula Goodenough and her book The Sacred Depths of Nature¹.

It’s likely that many readers will not have heard of her, but what follows is nevertheless relevant. It can be thought of as a study in:

  • the inadequacy of science to create a unifying story even when it is trying to be religious.
  • how confused sincere and well-meaning scientists can become when they deny the existence of the supernatural and the Divine.

Goodenough is different from the three just mentioned, who are all vociferous atheists, believing that modern science has proved their case. She differs in that, even though she believes in the same science, she is nevertheless “deeply enmeshed” in a Christian tradition (the Presbyterian Church) — although she may not necessarily accept their theology — and introduces religion into the debate.

I’m interested in what she has to say because her aim is the same as mine. She recognises the need for mythology in general: “Humans need stories — grand, compelling stories — that help to orient us in our lives and in the cosmos” (p174), and that to move forward we have to find some common agreement: “Any global tradition needs to begin with a shared worldview — a culture-independent, globally accepted consensus as to how things are” (Pxvi).

This is the shared worldview she offers us: “The Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the origin and evolution of life on this planet, the advent of human consciousness and the resultant evolution of cultures — this is the story, the one story, that has the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true” (Pxvi). She later concludes that this “Epic of Evolution is such a story, beautifully suited to anchor our search for planetary consensus, telling us of our nature, our place, our context” (p174).

She therefore believes in the same science as the three authors mentioned above, so the title of her book is intriguing. Sacred is a word usually associated with religion. Her follow-up to the first of those quotes is: “But that potential can be realized under only one condition. A cosmology works as a religious cosmology only if it resonates, only if it makes the listener feel religious (my italics). To be sure, the beauty of Nature — sunsets, woodlands, fireflies — has elicited religious emotions throughout the ages. We are moved to awe and wonder at the grandeur, the poetry, the richness of natural beauty; it fills us with joy and thanksgiving”.

She continues: “Our response to accounts of the workings of Nature, on the other hand, is decidedly less positive. The scientific version of how things are, and how they came to be, is much more likely, at first encounter, to elicit alienation, anomie, and nihilism, responses that offer little promise for motivating our allegiance or moral orientation” (both her italics, Pxvi-xvii).

She is certainly correct there. As physicist Steven Weinberg says: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”². Other authors I have quoted in this series talk about the universe’s pitiless indifference. What does Goodenough have to offer as a solution?

She says that religions address two fundamental human concerns, a cosmology — thus an understanding of the true nature of the universe — and a morality or ethos. “The role of religion is… to render the cosmological narrative so rich and compelling that it elicits our allegiance and our commitment to its emergent moral understandings” (Pxiv). The problem is therefore how a worldview which elicits alienation, anomie, and nihilism, can become rich and compelling enough to unite humanity.

She continues: “As I witness contemporary efforts to generate global understanding, I see some high-minded and idealistic people attempting to operate within an amalgam of economic, military, and political arrangements… (but) where is the religion? … What is really orienting this project besides fear and greed? Where is the shared cosmology and the shared morality? … Without a common religious orientation, we basically don’t know where to begin, nor do we know what to say or how to listen, nor are we motivated to respond”. She therefore wants to “outline the foundations for such a planetary ethic” (Pxv-xvi).

I would agree with much of what she says here. She clearly recognises that a unifying mythology must have a religious foundation — science is not enough. However, from this starting point, it is vitally important that we begin with a true cosmology, a true understanding of how things are. And that is where the problems begin. Goodenough has complete, but I would say unwarranted, faith in the worldview of conventional (materialist) science. Referring to the necessary globally accepted consensus, she says: “From my perspective, this part is easy. How things are is well, how things are: our scientific account of Nature, an account that can be called The Epic of Evolution”. As noted above, this is “The Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the origin and evolution of life on this planet, the advent of human consciousness and the resultant evolution of cultures”. She therefore believes in the Big Bang, the neo-Darwinian Synthesis (natural selection acting upon genetic mutations, her chapter 5), and the emergence of human consciousness. This is her truth, but all are debatable, and none of them have been proved absolutely.

The scientific worldview that she describes can be called the old paradigm. Just as life evolves, so too, it would seem, does science, for what she describes as “reality” (p172), “a fully modern, up-to-the-minute understanding of Nature” (Pxi), may now be out of date. A relevant article has recently been published on Medium by Paul Mulliner³ on the theme of how this worldview is being replaced, and there are many others saying similar things. He opens: “Our current world-view, which holds that our separate human brain generates consciousness, the Universe is a mostly empty and lifeless void and that the living beings on planet Earth have somehow emerged from random mutations of material stuff, is slowly being displaced by an emerging new vision of reality”, thus a new paradigm. Specifically on the emergence of human consciousness, he says: “Human consciousness, rather than being generated by the brain, is actually present everywhere in the Universe as an intrinsic cosmic consciousness field, which our brain tunes into and participates with”.

In another recent Medium article⁴, Deepak Chopra says: “Consciousness is innate in Nature. Living creatures should be viewed as unique species of consciousness”, and “Intelligence is innate in Nature and forms the linchpin of evolution. Intelligence is not the late-stage product of billions of years of primitive life forms becoming more complex physically”.

On the subject of natural selection acting upon genetic mutations, Mulliner says that there is a “generative cosmic intelligence that is continuously making the whole world out of itself, vibrationally transforming itself into the interwoven orchestration of living-cell biochemistry”. He is therefore introducing quantum physics into the debate, something that many biologists, including Goodenough, are unwilling to do⁵. The suggestion would be that what appears random to neo-Darwinians may not be quite so random after all.

The Big Bang is accepted by the majority of cosmologists, but is nevertheless controversial. I have discussed this in earlier articles⁶ where I have argued that, even if the Big Bang theory is true, it emerged from some very poor science. (A supplementary article will follow this one, developing on that theme.)

I would argue, therefore, that Goodenough does not allow herself to trace her feelings of wonder and awe to their true source, because she has allowed herself to be persuaded by a false scientific worldview⁷. She believes that the universe and life have arisen through natural processes, and this is the foundation upon which she wants to build her unifying vision: “So we extract from reality (!) all the meaning and guidance and emotional substance that we can, and we bring these responses with us as we set out to chart global paths” (p172). Her task is therefore to reconcile scientific materialism with religious feelings, and she comes up with two key phrases:

1. Religious naturalism:

  • “It is therefore the goal of this book to present an accessible account of our scientific understanding of Nature and then suggest ways that this account can call forth appealing and abiding religious responses — an approach that can be called religious naturalism. If religious emotions can be elicited by natural reality… then the story of Nature has the potential to serve as the cosmos for the global ethos that we need to articulate… The project can be undertaken only if we all experience a solemn gratitude that we exist at all, share a reverence for how life works, and acknowledge a deep and complex imperative that life continue” (Pxvii).
  • “Most religious traditions ask us to bow and tremble in deference to the Divine, to walk humbly with thy God. Religious naturalism asks that we locate such feelings of deference somewhere within the Earthly whole” (p87).

2. Covenant with Mystery. Confronted by the nihilism that lurks in the findings of science, she says: “I don’t have to seek a point. In any of it. Instead, I can see it as the locus of Mystery”, elaborating in statements like these:

  • “Nature can take its place as a strange but wondrous given”.
  • “The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany” (both p12).
  • “For me, the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty, and my ability to apprehend it, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value. The continuation of life… requires no further justification, no Creator, no superordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose other than that the continuation continue…” (p171).

Here she is displaying a strange lack of inquisitiveness for a scientist. She says that “the need for explanation pulsates in us all”, but not in her apparently, since she is unwilling to ask the big question, what is the source of these mysteries? She certainly feels religious, and invites others to also feel religious. However, what it might take to actually become religious would be to explore further the implications of what she is saying. She says: “Our story tells us of the sacredness of life, of the astonishing complexity of cells and organisms, of the vast lengths of time it took to generate their splendid diversity, of the enormous improbability that any of it happened at all. Reverence is the religious emotion elicited when we perceive the sacred” (p170).

She obviously has an unusual understanding of the word ‘sacred’. The Oxford English Dictionary definition is “connected with God or a god or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration”. But according to her, there is actually nothing, despite the title of her book, really sacred about life; it can all be explained naturalistically — she is quite insistent about it. For her it is “clear that life works through myriads of chemical reactions and that the information needed to organize this chemistry is encoded in DNA molecules”. Even though she has earlier talked about “the countless miracles that surround us” (p30), she is nevertheless convinced that “the foundation of life… (is) just so much biochemistry and biophysics… (that) the workings of life are not mysterious at all. They are obvious, explainable, and thermodynamically inevitable. And relentlessly mechanical. And bluntly deterministic” (p46).

She also assures us that “everything in our universe, including the Earth and its living creatures, obeys the laws of physics”, although she concedes that how they originated is one of the great mysteries. This would again be old-paradigm thinking. Deepak Chopra, in another Medium article⁸, discussing the wholeness and interconnectedness of the universe, says: “Whatever controls space, time, matter, and energy must be the universe’s overriding reality. Wholeness exerts a force, call it ‘the power of one’, that goes beyond physical forces. Or to put it another way, no combination of physical forces can be used to explain how the whole maintains and organizes itself”. Also, as Mulliner explains, the biochemistry and biophysics are only the surface of life, which emerge from a generative cosmic intelligence. This is what spiritual traditions have been saying for centuries. Goodenough claims to be exploring the sacred depths of nature, when she is only looking at the surface, not even scratching it.

We need a true cosmology, religion and mythology, not superficial ones unwilling to explore the deeper realities. Goodenough isn’t willing to search for them, preferring her Covenant with Mystery, which is really just a euphemism for not wanting to explore difficult questions. She says: “Life can be explained by its underlying chemistry, just as chemistry can be explained by its underlying physics” (p28), but wants to go no further. Why do we have to stop there? She says that the origin of the laws of physics is a mystery, is therefore unwilling to ask the question, what explains them? Is there nowhere we can go beyond physics? Is metaphysics a meaningless word?

To perceive life and the universe to be miracles is, I believe, the correct response. Goodenough refuses to make the obvious conclusion that Nature is not apparently, but really sacred, that is, a manifestation of God, or whatever similar term one prefers.

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“When I have (the experience of absolute or ethical value) I wonder at the existence of the world… It is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle”. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lecture on Ethics)

Image by Karl Frey from Pixabay

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website www.spiritualityinpolitics.com (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. Oxford University Press, 1998

2. The First Three Minutes, Flamingo, 1993, p149

3. https://medium.com/@paul_mulliner/discovering-the-new-reality-3b51f621ef4b

4. https://medium.com/@DeepakChopra/the-mystery-of-where-we-came-from-b113d612431f

5. As Deepak Chopra says: “Quantum mechanics is considered the most successful scientific theory of all time, but its effect on everyday life — or at least everyday thought — has been marginal”. (https://medium.com/@DeepakChopra/the-power-of-one-251d0792efcc )

6. See these articles:

7. Further evidence that she is trapped within the old paradigm are:

  • she says that “life emerged from nonlife” (p27). Actually there is no such thing as nonlife, only different levels of life — there is nothing but consciousness, which is by definition a feature of life, as both Mulliner and Chopra attest.
  • she says: “My thoughts are a lot of electricity flowing along a lot of membrane. My emotions are the result of neurotransmitters squirting on my brain cells” (p46–47). It is worth at least considering the alternative possibility that her thoughts are the cause of electricity flowing along membrane, and that neurotransmitters squirting on brain cells are the result of her emotions. Such possibilities never enter the minds of old-paradigm scientists, however.

8. https://medium.com/@DeepakChopra/the-power-of-one-251d0792efcc

Graham Pemberton

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I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com

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