This is the latest in a series of articles. It would be helpful to have read them all¹, but essential to have read at least the last one. Otherwise what follows won’t make much sense.
In the second half of the previous one, I was describing how spiritual traditions understand the nature of an organism, that there are several other levels or bodies above the physical body, thus not manifested in the physical world. I concluded by saying that, if these other bodies do exist, it opens up the possibilities that evolution and development might take place at levels different from the physical before emerging into physical form, and that physical processes might be directed from these higher levels.
Raynor C. Johnson, whom I consider to be an authority in spiritual matters, expresses this idea as follows. He says that humans participate in at least six levels, that “the soul has acquired and uses a hierarchy of five bodies, or vehicles, or instruments, to serve its purposes”, and that “each body may be regarded as created by, or precipitated from, the one higher above it. The influence of the soul penetrates through all the bodies; the influence of the causal body penetrates through all those below it, and so on”².
Now I’m going to explore whether there is any scientific evidence in support of such ideas, beginning by discussing a book called The Cosmic Blueprint by the physicist Paul Davies³. Even though he has written books with titles like The Mind of God, and God and the New Physics, he does not speak from a spiritual perspective. He is rather a conventional scientist, seeking naturalistic explanations: “I have taken the position that the universe can be understood by the application of the scientific method. While emphasising the shortcomings of a purely reductionist view of nature, I intended that the gaps left by the inadequacies of reductionist thinking should be filled by additional scientific theories that concern the collective and organisational properties of complex systems, and not by appeal to mystical or transcendent principles” (p203).
He is, however, open-minded, will acknowledge genuine problems when he finds them, and does not try to sweep them under the carpet. Having stated the above as his starting point, he concedes immediately that scientific theory comes up against a big obstacle: “The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to emerge and develop to the point of consciousness — in other words, that the universe has organised its own self-awareness — is for me powerful evidence that there is ‘something going on’ behind it all. The impression of design is overwhelming”. I wonder what this mysterious ‘something going on’ is!
He does use the term ‘new paradigm’, but in a different sense to how I’ve used it in earlier articles, where I think of it as a reunification of science and religion. He sees instead the need for a revolution in scientific thinking, along the lines of my theme of creative evolution: “Now there is the new paradigm of the creative universe, which recognises the progressive, innovative character of physical processes. The new paradigm emphasises the collective, cooperative and organisational aspects of nature; its perspective is synthetic and holistic rather than analytic and reductionist” (p2).
If the universe is creative, it must be intelligent, and nothing like the blind, unconscious evolutionary process advocated by Richard Dawkins and others like him. (In passing, it is worth noting that such an idea, if true, refutes any notions of deism, a remote God who withdraws after the act of creation. As the epigram to his first chapter Davies quotes Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine: “God is no more an archivist unfolding an infinite sequence he had designed once and forever. He continues the labour of creation throughout time”⁴.) The question is, where does the intelligence reside? Is it in nature itself, which is the idea that Davies is exploring in this book? (He frequently uses the term self-organisation, which implies nothing external or higher.) Or does it descend from the higher levels that I was describing above? He actually uses the term downward causation, as does another physicist Amit Goswami, author of Creative Evolution: a Physicist’s Resolution between Darwinism and Intelligent Design⁵, thus suggesting something similar to Raynor Johnson above.
Here are a few random observations and quotes relevant to my theme, that nature cannot be understood without reference to other levels of reality:
- The word blueprint in his title is actually reminiscent of the word archetype, as discussed in my previous article. Is there a blueprint (plan, design) for the cosmos?
- “Strong organising principles are invoked by those who find existing physical laws inadequate to explain the high degree of organisational potency found in nature and see this as evidence that matter and energy are somehow being guided or encouraged into progressively higher organisational levels by additional creative influences”. He also refers to “some ‘behind the scenes’ creative activity” (p151). What could ‘behind the scenes’ possibly mean from a physicalist perspective, if not a higher level?
- Referring to the ideas of physicist David Bohm – I would argue the most spiritual of the quantum physicists – who believes that quantum processes are not random, Davies says that in that case “the whole basis of neo-Darwinism is undermined”, that there is “an internally ordered process of evolution” (p156).
- “Strong organising principles — additional laws of physics that refer to the cooperative, collective properties of complex systems, and which cannot be derived from the underlying existing physical laws — remain a challenging but speculative idea. Mysteries such as the origin of life and the progressive nature of evolution encourage the feeling that there are additional principles at work which somehow make it ‘easier’ for systems to discover complex organised states. But the reductionist methodology of most scientific investigations makes it likely that such principles, if they exist, risk being overlooked in current research” (p199).
- “The flower analogy suggests the idea of a blueprint — a pre-existing plan or project which the universe is realising as it develops. This is Aristotle’s ancient teleological picture of the cosmos. Is it to be resurrected by the new paradigm of modern physics?” (p200)
Perhaps the most difficult problem to resolve without reference to higher levels is that of morphogenesis: “Among the many scientific puzzles posed by living organisms, perhaps the toughest concerns the origin of form. Put simply, the problem is this. How is a disorganised collection of molecules assembled into a coherent whole that constitutes a living organism, with all the right bits in the right places? The creation of biological forms is known as morphogenesis, and despite decades of study it is a subject still shrouded in mystery. (He was writing in 1989, and science can make quick progress. I would be surprised, however, if significant progress has been made since then on these issues.)
“The enigma is at its most striking in the seemingly miraculous development of an embryo from a single fertilised cell into a more or less independent living entity of fantastic complexity, in which many cells have become specialised to form parts of nerve, liver, bone, etc. It is a process that is somehow supervised to an astonishing level of detail and accuracy in both space and time.
“In studying the development of the embryo it is hard to resist the impression that there exists somewhere a blueprint, or plan of assembly, carrying the instructions needed to achieve the finished form. In some as yet poorly understood way, the growth of the organism is tightly constrained to conform to this plan. There is thus a strong element of teleology involved. It seems as if the growing organism is being directed towards its final state by some sort of global supervising agency” (p 102).
“If there is a blueprint, the information must be stored somewhere, and the obvious place is in the DNA of the original fertilised egg, known to be the repository of genetic information. (This would be the standard neo-Darwinian explanation.) This implies that the ‘plan’ is molecular in nature. The problem is then to understand how the spatial arrangement of something many centimetres in size can be organised from the molecular level. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of cell differentiation. How do some cells ‘know’ they have to become blood cells, while others must become part of the gut, or backbone? Then there is the problem of spatial positioning. How does a given cell know where it is located in relation to other parts of the organism, so that it can ‘turn into’ the appropriate type of cell for the finished product?
“Related to these difficulties is the fact that although different parts of the organism develop differently, they all contain the same DNA. If every molecule of DNA possesses the same global plan for the whole organism, how is it that different cells implement different parts of that plan? Is there, perhaps, a ‘metaplan’ to tell each cell which part of the plan to implement. If so, where is the metaplan located? In the DNA? But this is surely to fall into an infinite regress”.
Davies continues to discuss further difficulties if the blueprint is genetic, then says: “The real challenge is to demonstrate how localised interactions can exercise global control. It is very hard to see how this can ever be explained in mechanistic terms at the molecular level” (p104). If that is true, then we presumably have to look to other higher levels in order to explain this very real phenomenon.
He goes on to observe that the traditional mechanistic, reductionist approach is based on the particle concept of physics, but that particles as primary objects have been replaced in physics by fields. He notes, however that “so far the field concept has made little impact on biology” (p105). He then suggests a possible solution to the above problem: “A possible escape is to suppose that somehow the global plan is stored in the fields themselves, and that the DNA acts as a receiver rather than a source of genetic information” (p106).
I would suggest that this is indeed the case, or at least that such an idea, if true, fits neatly with the idea of downward causation as expressed by Raynor Johnson above. Are these ‘fields’ a scientific way of describing what spiritual people call etheric or astral bodies, or even the soul?
I said above that Davies does not have a spiritual agenda, but tries to restrict his thinking to the realm of science. At a conference of scientists and mystics, however, he said that “Teilhard (de Chardin)’s belief in a creative progressive cosmos has at last been vindicated”. If he is sticking by his first statement, he is therefore saying that a creative progressive cosmos is true science! If he is correct, that would be a nail in the coffin of neo-Darwinism: “There will always be some scientists who’ll see in the creative cosmos nothing but a pointless charade. Others, however, will find these new developments deeply inspiring and it will confirm their belief that there is a meaning behind existence”⁶. Meaning! Thus teleology, that neo-Darwinian heresy.
1. for a guide, see under Evolution, Doubts About Darwinism, New, on the Blog Index page.
2. The Spiritual Path, Hodder & Stoughton, 1972, pp 13–14
3. Unwin Hyman Ltd., 1989
4. ‘The Rediscovery of Time’, in Science and Complexity, ed. Sara Nash, Science Reviews Ltd., 1985
5. Theosophical Publishing House, 2008
6. ‘The Cosmic Blueprint: Self-Organizing Principles of Matter and Energy’, in The Spirit of Science from Experiment to Experience, David Lorimer (ed.), Floris Books, pp 74, 96