THE JOURNEY OF TRANSCENDING HUMAN NARCISSISM
Awakening to our Real Identity
Part One / Part Two
Dave Pruett, a former NASA researcher, is an award-winning computational scientist and emeritus professor of mathematics at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Reason and Wonder, his first book for the general public, grew out of an acclaimed honors course at JMU, with partial support from the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and JMU's Mengebier Endowed Professorship. The author hopes that readers will experience what bright and intellectually courageous students have raved about: "... a vast world of mystery and discovery" and a "positively altered ... worldview and relationship to the universe."
Yago: Dave, you are very much welcome to this blog where we are naming and deconstructing the energies of enslavement that keep perpetuating slavery in today’s world. You have recently published a very interesting book called Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit. You deal in great measure with issues of identity. It is the journey to our true selves explained through several “identity” revolutions. I profoundly believe that enslavement has much to do with identity. Your book offers a way to move beyond the either/or choice of reason versus intuition, a dichotomy that ultimately leaves either the mind or the heart waiting. In doing so, it seeks to resolve an age-old conflict at the root of much human dysfunction, including today’s global ecological crisis. Your reflections and discoveries will contribute very much to the goal of this blog.
To begin with, you have been a former NASA researcher, you are an award-winning computational scientist and professor of Mathematics at James Madison University. Could you share with us your professional journey and how has it contributed in your personal evolution?
Dave: My personal and professional journeys are closely intertwined. I’m the product of a very rational father—a physician—and a very intuitive and religious mother (who passed away two years ago). I’m both: a mathematical scientist who occasionally dabbles in poetry and has learned to listen carefully to the still, small voice of intuition. However, these two parts of my being—the rational and the intuitive—have not always cohabitated happily. This tension produced vocational ambivalence that persisted well into mid life. Having graduated with a degree in engineering, I briefly considered entering the ministry (which would have been a disaster) before teaching high-school mathematics for a while. Eventually I settled into university teaching, but not before flipping back and forth between teaching and NASA-related research.
I owe much to a mentor whom I encountered in mid-life: John Yungblut. John, a former Episcopalian minister and civil-rights worker, founded an organization named Touchstone, dedicated to spiritual guidance in the sense of helping individuals uncover their deep identity and live true to it. John, who spent a lifetime studying the religious mystics, helped me to realize what I was experiencing—being drawn in two different directions—was the quintessential struggle of mystics throughout the ages. Through John, I encountered some mystics of old, and more importantly, some influential modern mystics, including Carl Jung and the paleontologist-priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Through their stories I learned that, if one can hold this tension of opposites long enough—“sustain it, be true to it—[one] can become a vessel within which the divine opposites come together and give birth to a new reality,” in the words of Mary Louise Von Franz, protégé of Carl Jung.
Yago: You say that a decade ago, you left your comfort zone as an academic applied mathematician to create the course “From Black Elk to Black Holes: Shaping a myth for a New Millennium” at James Madison University. This course eventually gave birth to your book Reason and Wonder. Why did you feel the need to leave the comfort zone in academics? Who was Black Elk? What was the essence of your course? How did it evolve to become this new book? Could you explain to us this process?
| Dave Pruett leads a discussion|
during his honors course
Dave: At some point in my journey, I began to realize that what I thought was a personal struggle for integrity is actually a societal one. Cultural historian Richard Tarnas observes “… the modern soul’s allegiance is to Romanticism, while the modern mind’s allegiance is to the Enlightenment. … That’s the schizophrenia that all of us grew up with in the twentieth century.” Many ills of Western society can be traced to a disconnect between head and heart, which manifests culturally as a schism between science and religion.
My honors course at James Madison University--“From Black Elk to Black Holes”—was designed to collectively explore this dichotomy. It’s premise was to view the universe from vastly different perspectives—from a mythological perspective of Native Americans on the one hand and a modern scientific perspective on the other—and then to look for resonances between these seemingly disparate and possibly irreconcilable worldviews. The former perspective was provided primarily through reading Black Elk Speaks, an American classic that tells the true story of Nicolas Black Elk, a Lakota (“Sioux”) shaman who was a teenager at the time of the Wounded Knee (SD) massacre of 1890.
|A web of connections is formed as students connect|
to each other, connect ideas, and connect rational
and intuitive modes of learning
To the amazement of all involved—students and instructor—we were able to bridge that divide, and in so doing, many students found the course to be life changing, as have I. The lectures prepared, insights gleaned, and connections made gradually coalesced—over a period of 12 years--into Reason and Wonder, a love-letter to the cosmos written with the help of 140 honors students.
|John Hunt Publishing|
Yago: In your book you describe the way science is contributing to deconstruct human narcissism. Steve Taylor in his book (The Fall, 2005) talks about “the ego explosion,” happening 6,000 years ago, as the most momentous event in the history of the human race. But, first of all, what do you mean by human narcissism? What is its origin? Does it have any relation with the development of our brains? Can we say that it is a necessary step, to be transcendent, in the evolution of humanity as part of an emerging self-aware Universe?
Dave: Human narcissism is the (probably) faulty perception that the universe is all about us: Homo sapiens. I don’t know the origins of this perception, but certainly Judeo-Christian mythology has reinforced it. Other cultures—Native American, for example—do not seem as prone to such narcissism.
Regarding the ego, I often ask my psychologist friends (and myself), “What is the ego?” I haven’t found a good answer, but I do think I have a good analogy. The ego is to the soul what the eggshell is to the egg. At one stage of development, it’s a necessary protective enclosure that allows the delicate young soul to develop. But at another stage, the ego must be transcended if the individual is to find her/his place in community. Similarly, the human species must transcend its narcissism in order to find its true place in the cosmos.
Yago: You say that Copernican revolutions, originating in science, profoundly alter human self-perceptions to leave lasting traces in the collective psyche. Could you tell us what was the human self-perception that was shattered by the first Copernican revolution?
|Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543)|
Dave: Copernican revolutions are so-named in deference to Nicolas Copernicus, the Polish astronomer, mathematician, and cleric who inadvertently landed what Freud term “the first blow to human narcissism.” He did this by overturning the old cosmology through the publication in 1543 of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. By shifting from a geocentric cosmological perspective to a heliocentric one, Copernicus literally made the earth move.
Yago: You say that Copernicus dethroned the human race from its self-appointed seat at the center of the cosmos. Could you explain to us Copernicus’ contribution to our self-awareness? How did his discovery affect our sense of identity?
Dave: The cosmology of Ptolemy, which prevailed from the early second through the mid 16th centuries, was both earth-centered and homocentric. Christianity, which came of age with a Ptolemaic worldview, adopted much of this cosmology as de facto dogma through the writings of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
“Of all discoveries and opinions,” observed Goethe, “none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus,” for at least two reasons. First, as Einstein observed, Copernicanism dislodged us from the center of the cosmos and relegated us to its remote outskirts. Second, aftershocks of the Copernican revolution—still ongoing in scientific developments such as Big Bang cosmology and the Hubble Space Telescope--exploded the size of the known universe. Once thought to contain but a few thousand nearby stars visible to the naked eye, the universe has grown to some 100 billion galaxies each sporting, on average, 100 billion stars! Is all of this grandeur just for us humans?
|Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)|
Yago: Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler had the contentious and dangerous task of promoting and defending Copernicus’ theory. The “Galileo affair” drove a wedge between science and faith that persists to this day. The central issue cut to the heart of what it means to be human. Galileo courageously believed that Truth is one. He established the complementarity of the book of nature and the book of scripture. Could you share with us Galileo’s main contribution to the meaning of our humanity?
Dave: At issue is the locus of truth. Does it lie externally, in religious authority, or can the individual’s perceptions and experiences be true guides to ultimate reality? Galileo’s “crime” was unabashed belief in the latter, at least in questions of a physical nature. “In questions of science,” he maintained, “the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single mind.” Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler collectively paved the way for Isaac Newton and the Enlightenment.
|Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)|
Yago: You call Johannes Kepler the “protestant Galileo.” Carl Sagan said that Kepler was the first astrophysicist and the last scientific astrologer. What did he mean by that?
Dave: Together, Galileo and Kepler reset the cosmos’ center of gravity by convincing us of the validity of heliocentric cosmology. Galileo, who grew up in Florence, a child of the Renaissance, was truly modern in many aspects. His writings have a modern ring. Kepler, in contrast, was born in the shadow of the Dark Ages. His mother was tried for witchcraft. The number mysticism of Pythagoras and Nicolas of Cusa motivated his initial foray into mathematics and astronomy. His early scientific “discoveries” were whimsical in retrospect. But Kepler had extraordinary scientific integrity, perhaps more even than Galileo. When the theory didn’t quite fit the astronomical data, he kept searching for a better theory. It took him innumerable false starts and more than twenty years to elaborate the three laws of planetary motion that paved the way for Newton. One might say that Kepler clawed his way from the Dark Ages into the Enlightenment, and in so doing, helped lift us as well.
Yago: Supernovae, black holes and the Big bang. As you say creation is not a fait accompli. It is dynamic, sometimes violent, and still very much in progress. Could you share with us the last echoes of the Copernican revolution? Legacies that Copernicus could not have dreamed of?
|Big Bang simulation|
Dave: Well, I don’t think we have seen the last echoes yet! However, one of the more exciting echoes was heard, literally, in 1965. As the theory of the Big Bang developed, physicists realized that we are still immersed in the primordial “fireball,” and that faint wisps of that explosion should be detectable as low-level microwave radiation from all skyward directions. Two researchers at Bell Labs—Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson—accidentally stumbled onto that radiation when they encountered an annoying, persistent, and initially baffling “hiss” in a horn antenna that they were using for satellite communications. They were eavesdropping on a lingering whisper from the Big Bang! For this discovery, they shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978.
Another aftershock of the Copernican revolution is the theory of black holes. I’ll never forget the impact of “seeing” a black hole for the first time. Of course, I’m being facetious, because by definition they are invisible and their presence can only be inferred. Nevertheless, I’d taken a group of university students to London for a month to study “British science” in situ. We were on a day trip to the Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, which has produced some 25 Nobel laureates. To our amazement, when our tour guide was taken ill, his replacement was Malcolm Longair, then director of the Cavendish! (Other directors include such scientific giants as James Clerk Maxwell and Ernest Rutherford.) Longair, a radio astronomer, described advances in radio astronomy that now permit astrophysicists to peer into the hearts of distant galaxies, and what they see is spine-tingling. At the center of a garden-variety galaxy, stars race around an apparent gravitational source. These stars behave like mere planets, orbiting tightly on short gravitational leashes, trapped in a monstrous gravitational field. Their orbits are elliptical, in accordance with Kepler’s first law. The location of the gravitational source can be pinpointed precisely at the coincident foci of overlapping ellipses, as Longair’s data showed us. But the gravitational source, unlike the orbiting stars, remains invisible because the source is a black hole!
One might think that black holes are just another curiosity of the cosmos. What I find startling is that in a subtle way may be necessary for the existence of life. Galaxies are like giant heat engines, with heat sources (stars) and heat sinks (black holes). Without the sinks, there could be no downhill flow of energy, and without that downhill flow, there could be no life!
Yago: You say that about midway through the Copernican Revolution, if we consider that it took around 400 years to process, comes Charles Darwin. Darwinism was the second blow to human narcissism. Darwin did to biology what Copernicus did for cosmology. Darwin explodes our view of how we see ourselves in the biological cosmos. What can you say about this second blow to our narcissism?
|Charles Darwin (1809-1882)|
Dave: Prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) humans sat atop a pinnacle of divine creation. Origin and its sequel, the Descent of Man (1871), displaced humans from that seat of high honor and relegated us to one branch of a “tree of life,” no different in kind from other living organisms, only in degree. Adding insult to injury, Darwinism hinted that Homo sapiens arose by fortuitous happenstance among random events rather than by inspired design. Thus, Copernicanism and Darwinism both call into question the exalted status of the human.
Yago: You say that following Copernicus, science and religion separated. After Darwin they divorced. Could you share with us your understanding of this?
Dave: The late psychiatrist Scott Peck observed that the “Galileo affair” surrounding the Copernican controversy produced an unwritten contract between science and religion in which the “natural” became the domain of science and the “supernatural” became the domain of religion. Others might place the separation earlier, with the partition of mind and matter by the philosopher Rene Descartes. Either way, Darwin’s intrusion on religion’s myth of creation produced divorce. That divorce has forced what Ilya Prigogine (Nobel laureate in chemistry) terms a “tragic choice” between an “alienating science and unscientific philosophy.” This is particularly true in the US. Although the US has produced more Nobel laureates than any other country, half the American populace is suspicious of science to the point of being anti-science.
Yago: You say that above all, Darwinism is a “time bomb.” It explodes the sweep of time as extravagantly as Copernicanism exploded the confines of space. When we combine these two revolutions, for the first time in the history of life as we know it, we begin to have a complete picture of our physical and biological origins. Could you expand on this?
Dave: When as a young man Darwin embarked on the H.M.S. Beagle, he was a young-earth creationist who accepted without question a biblical chronology that reckoned the age of the earth at about 6000 years. However, his study of geology during the five-year voyage convinced him that the earth must be exceedingly old. Indeed, “deep time” became a necessary ingredient of the theory of evolution. The discovery of radioactivity in the late 19th century allowed definitive dating of the earth at about 4.6 billion years, vindicating Darwin, who went to his grave still uncertain about the earth’s age. The deep-time legacy of Darwin therefore parallels the deep-space legacy of Copernicus. Both revolutions dramatically explode our perceptual confines.
|A pictorial view of the Aristotelian model of the Cosmos|
The two revolutions share another common attribute: dynamism. The Ptolemaic-Aristotelian universe was flawless, eternal, and above all, static. Darwinism undermined the stability of species. Big Bang cosmology--an aftershock of Copernicanism—undermined the stability of the heavens. The common theme of both revolutions is that the nature of Nature is to change. Heraclitus was right: there is nothing permanent but change.
Yago: You say that survival of the fittest is not the only attribute of the evolutionary theory. As organisms progress they also learn to cooperate. What evidence do we have in this regard?
|Charles Darwin's 1837 sketch|
of the diversification of species
from a single stock.
Once species are “comfortable” in their niches, interesting adaptations can take place. Darwin once observed a variety of Madagascar orchid with an 11-inch long nectar receptacle. He casually predicted that somewhere there existed a moth with an 11-inch proboscis, peculiarly adapted to pollinating that particular orchid. Forty years later, the moth was discovered. This is a lovely example of coevolution, a type of biological cooperation between or among species. When you think about it, the entire biosphere is the result of a type of cooperation among millions of species in which each has a role to play, from the lowliest bacteria to the human.
Yago: Bruce H. Lipton, in his book The Biology of Belief, demonstrates how the new science of epigenetics is revolutionizing our understanding of the link between mind and matter and the profound effects it has on our personal lives and the collective life of our species. You find epigenetics the most fascinating thing from biology. For you epigenetics is to biology what entanglement is to quantum mechanics. Can we say that epigenetics is one of today’s echoes of the second Copernican revolution? You say that we have incredible revelations from modern evolutionary biology. Could you open our eyes to the latest discoveries in this field?
Dave: Oh, I like that—epigenetics as an echo of the second “Copernican” revolution! Yes!
Science remains heavily steeped in materialism, which partially explains the exuberance surrounding the decoding of a complete human genome. It was presumed by many that decoding the genome would reveal the essence of being human. However, the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003--spectacular as it was--evoked a sense of letdown for some. For all their efforts, what had researchers gleaned? Some found the accomplishment hollow, likening it to the completion of a phone directory for New York City. Having all those names and addresses reveals nothing about the interactions of the persons listed.
Perhaps the HGP’s great accomplishment, therefore, lay in exposing the importance of biology’s newest frontier: epigenetics, the study of gene expression. It’s not enough to know the genome. Genes encode heritable traits, but only if those genes are activated, or “expressed.” Although identical twins begin life with identical genomes, by old age their genetic makeup may differ by 50 percent or more. All manner of environment factors—lifestyle, diet, habits, exercise—affect gene expression. Epigenetics has revived the old nature-nurture debate. What we become depends literally upon all that happens to us over a lifetime. Genes alone do not make an individual; it takes an ecosystem. So biology too reveals an essential dynamism and interconnectedness.
Yago: Once we get over the shocks to our self-image posed by Copernicanism and Darwinism, there is opportunity for a revised and more meaningful myth. For example, the late Catholic theologian Thomas Berry recognized that, for the first time in human history, we have a common myth that we can share. We understand myth as a grand narrative that gives meaning to our lives, individually and collectively. What can you say about that?
Dave: Every human culture has a creation myth that embodies how “the people” are to relate to the cosmos, their creator, and their fellow creatures if they are to thrive. The importance of these grand narratives cannot be overstated. Observe any culture whose myth has been stripped away and you will find devastation.
For example, read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and your heart will break.
I believe that much of the dysfunction of the Western world is due to a subtle loss of myth. “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story,” observed Berry. “We are between stories.” Science has gradually eroded the religious myths without offering a palatable substitute. Berry spent most of his life scripting and telling the “new story” that blends modern scientific insights and ancient wisdom. And what a story it is. For the first time in human history, we have the possibility of a common myth that incorporates all peoples and indeed all things in its cosmic sweep. One is reminded of the Lakota password mitakuye oyasin, which translates “all my relatives” but implies that everything in creation is a beloved relation.
Yago: Could you briefly share with us the “new story” proposed by Berry?
Dave: Thomas Berry’s hallmark aphorism is the following: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” His vision is simply about re-awakening to the numinous qualities of the cosmos in general, and the earth in particular, qualities that are discounted in the extreme materialism of the West.
|Timberlake Earth Sanctuary Press, 2012|
Any attempt of mine to illuminate Berry’s vision will pale in comparison to what Toben has done. Perhaps the best I can do is to let Berry speak for himself, as recorded by Toben. In their last interview in May 2009, Berry conveyed to Toben “seeds of the future,” glimpses of his vision intended for younger generations. Both the interviewer and the interviewee felt a sense of urgency during that meeting, each knowing it would be their last. Berry was quite ill and passed just weeks later. Here are a few of those beautiful seeds:
"Tell them in the darkness of this time, a vast transformation is occurring in the depths of human consciousness, which is leading to a recovery of the soul, the earth, the universe, and a sense of the sacred."
"Tell them a Powerful Loving Voice that spoke through every cosmic activity is speaking again through voices all over the earth—voices who recognize that loving the earth as their common origin unifies us all."
"This Loving Voice is also speaking through every bird, leaf and star, and through the polar bear, the wolf and every threatened species, awakening humanity to see all living forms as a single sacred community that lives or dies together."
"Tell them that the concern now must be for the preservation of the whole earth, a bio-spiritual planet. … And tell them they will meet great companions along the way, including those that burrow in the soil, fly in the air, and swim in the sea."
"Tell them that they can find their own story within the sacred story of the universe."
"Above all, tell them to practice an intimate presence to the beauty and wonder of the natural world."
Yago: You claim that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that he started another Copernican revolution, this one related to the idea of perception. What can we know through our senses about external reality? How accurately does the representation of the physical world recorded by our senses portray that reality? You say that Kant proposed a paradigm shift by suggesting that our cognitive state makes possible the existence of so-called external reality. What can you say about that?
|Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804)|
Dave: Before Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) earned renown as a titan of philosophy, he was an amateur astronomer, and a good one. Kant correctly hypothesized that nebulae are in fact “island universes,” galaxies like our own Milky Way, albeit so remote as to appear cloud-like, their individual stars beyond the resolving power of telescopes of his day. Not until the 1920s did Edwin Hubble, peering through the Mt. Wilson Observatory’s massive 100-inch telescope, prove Kant right, decisively ending a long-standing debate over nebulae.
Kant’s brush with astronomy quickened him to the problem of perception. He concluded that Das Ding An Sich (ultimate reality, literally “the thing in itself”), lies beyond the grasp of perception because our senses and mental structures filter and invariably distort what is sensed. Kant went so far as to speculate: “It is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible.” By reversing the primacy of matter and mind—a perennial chicken and egg question for philosophers--he believed he had initiated a paradigm shift every bit as potent as that of Copernicus.
Yago: What is your personal belief on that? Do you agree that Kant brought a paradigm shift in perception?
Dave: I think that Kant was too far ahead of his time for his paradigm shift to take hold outside of philosophical circles. However, certain implications of quantum mechanics now also call into question the independence of “external” reality from the probing mind, lending credence to Kant’s assertion that the mind somehow participates in shaping “reality.”
But in a broader sense, here we have exposed the root of much human dysfunction. Two rigid metaphysics compete for human allegiance: transcendental monism (spirit first) and materialistic monism (matter first), the former the metaphysic of faith and the latter that of science. Currently they are at loggerheads, forcing many to choose one over the other. As we have said earlier, it is a “tragic choice” that is exacerbating our current crises, particularly, the ecological crisis.
There is, however, a third way: synthesis. I believe that ultimately we will come around to the paradigm shift of Teilhard de Chardin, the outcome of his own struggle to integrate his scientific and spiritual inclinations. Teilhard came to view spirit and matter as two faces of the same coin, faces he termed the “Within” and the “Without.” To Teilhard, every smidgen of matter has a spiritual nature, all the way down to the most elementary particle. It is a view remarkably congruent to that of Native peoples. More about this later.
|Albert Einstein (1879-1955)|
General relativity—really a generalized theory of gravitation—is more stunning. The fabric of spacetime is dynamic rather than static. Spacetime is not like the stage upon which events happen. A better analogy is the spider’s web. The spider and its web are partners. The spider’s motions jostle and distort the web, even as the web’s fabric makes possible the spider’s locomotion. General relativity constructs a web-like cosmos. Space, time, and all events that occur in spacetime are integrally interconnected. Elementary particles, planets, stars, humans and creatures: all perturb the spacetime fabric, sending ripples throughout the cosmic web.
|Theory of Relativity|
Dave: Einstein’s famous formula is widely considered the most beautiful scientific formula ever conceived. It’s beauty lies in the fact that energy (E) and mass (m), previously thought to have been independent concepts, are really two different manifestations of the same thing, sort of like ice and water. Energy is liberated matter; matter is congealed energy.
From a philosophical point of view, however, the formula suggests that the material world is not as “solid” as we had thought. We might equally say that we live in an “energetic” cosmos rather than a “material” cosmos.
Finally, the equation is terrifying because of the constant of proportionality: c squared. Here, c represents the speed of light, which is an extraordinarily large number. Square it, and it’s humongous. Thus, under the right conditions, a tiny morsel of matter can liberate prodigious quantities of energy. This, unfortunately, is the principle behind nuclear weaponry, which caused Einstein much heartache.
Dave: Believe it or not, Einstein’s happiest thought was that a person falling from a roof would experience weightlessness during the fall! Essentially, this was a replay of a gedanken (thought) experiment by Galileo that concluded that objects of different masses fall to the ground at the same rate, countermanding Aristotle’s belief that heavier objects fall faster. The result implies the exact equivalence of two different measures of mass: gravitational mass and inertial mass. That unlikely equivalence led Einstein to infer the equivalence of gravitation and acceleration, and from this “principle of equivalence” came the general theory of relativity, albeit after more than a decade of gruelling intellectual labor.