Back Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue

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Edward J. Alam
Soul Reflections: Apes, Anthropology, and Aristotle


The quest to know who we are cannot be separated from the quest to know who we were.  Not only is this true for the human race as a whole, but also on the personal existential level.  We all have a story of who we once were, and the better we know and tell it, the more we can say about who we are now.  My personal past history and present identity form a unity, which is necessarily related to the unity formed by the past history and present identity of the race as a whole.  The empirical narrative for the latter is complex, with paleontologists, anthropologists, geologists, biologists, and geneticists all in on the discussion.  But no mere empirical narrative is able to capture all the depth of either an individual life or the life of the race as a whole.  This is not to say that the rational accounts fare much better.  For more depth, philosophers must be seated at the table.  But even after the most enlightened and scientifically informed philosophers from both the empirical and rational traditions have had their say, we are still dealing with what will always be, perhaps, one of the greatest human mysteries: the mystery of human origins.  As great as the mystery is, we are compelled to investigate it in the hope that we might gain more insight into why “we have become a question to ourselves,” and perhaps go on to live better lives than we did.  The twentieth century is a good place to begin the present investigation since in addition to the two world wars, it will also be remembered for two great scientific revolutions, both of which are directly relevant to the themes in this paper: the revolution in physics that marks roughly the first half of the century, and the revolution in genetics, which marks roughly the second half.  Both have had philosophical implications ranging from the absurd and the ugly to the profound and the beautiful.  Not least among these implications with respect to the revolution in physics, and weighing in on the side of the profound and the beautiful, is the new insight into the nature of matter.  One crucial philosophical result of this revolution is the revival of Aristotle’s conception of matter as potency.  And as no Aristotelian doctrine of matter can be accepted without also appropriating, to some degree, his doctrine of form, the age old question of the soul is back on the table—with only a few brave anthropologists willing to take it up.  Thus enters the second scientific revolution, which culminated towards the end of the century when scientists specified the entire DNA sequence for the virus phiX 174 in 1980 and with teams of molecular biologists from the U.S. and Europe completing the first map of the entire human genome twenty years later.  Just as the revolution in physics immediately spawned superficial and hasty conclusions in philosophy, only to be gradually overcome by more profound and thorough insights, such as the one that is reviving Aristotle’s conception of matter as potency, the genetic revolution seems to be following course.  The immediate and still dominant philosophical fallout usually revolves around one particular stunning fact, which was discovered in the early days of the revolution, but confirmed in an unprecedented way only in 1997, namely, that 98.4 per cent of the genetic material of chimpanzees is the same as the genetic material of human beings.  We are genetically so close, in fact, that some taxonomists justifiably speak of humans and chimps, along with gorillas, as sibling species.  One superficial conclusion was predictable enough, as scientists and even philosophers hastily and categorically excluded once and for all, so they thought, any talk of a human soul, or of any soul for that matter.  Of course, the attempt to preclude serious discussions of soul and form from philosophy has antecedents going as far back as the thirteenth century with William of Ockham’s Nominalism.  Armed with the new genetic facts, some philosophers today, following certain outspoken anthropologists, claim they now have hard evidence that any discussion of soul or form is simply unscientific.  As time passes and reflection deepens, the tides are beginning to turn, and just as with the revolution in physics, some of the really important insights began to emerge from the physicists themselves, so, too, the deeper philosophical implications have begun to emerge from some of the anthropologists themselves.  Chief among these bright anthropological lights is the work of RenĂ© Girard, who brings to the discussion not only his expert knowledge of Cultural Anthropology, but also his proficiency in the disciplines of Psychoanalysis, Literary Criticism and Scriptural Exegesis.  His transdisciplinary approach to the mystery of human origins produces a rich and sophisticated linguistic apparatus that sheds light on traditional Aristotelian accounts of the soul.  In light of the work of anthropologists like Girard and while mustering up support from philosophers like Wittgenstein, the present reflections probe the nature of the new anthropological insights generated by the genetic revolution and specify how these new scientific insights may be able to sustain a revival of Aristotelian accounts of form—analogous to the way the revolution in physics has so far sustained a revival of Aristotle’s account of matter. 

Edward J. Alam is Associate Professor at Notre Dame University, near Beirut, Lebanon, where he has taught philosophy and theology for the last 11 years.  He was Plenary speaker at the World Congress of Metaphysics in Rome in July 2003, and he gave a Plenary address at the First Asian International Conference on Metaphysics and Mysticism in Bangkok, Thailand in May of 2001.  In addition to his involvement in many European and North American international conferences, he has participated in international conferences in Africa, India, Iran, and China.  He has published numerous articles in international journals, and two major books: (1) on the philosophical contributions of John H. Newman’s Grammar of Assent, (2) an introduction to a Philosophy high-school textbook in Lebanon.  As chairman of the Local Society Initiative in Lebanon, he is presently working in the field of the Religion/Science dialogue with an emphasis on inter-religious dialogue.  Dr. Alam was Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Uppsala, Sweden in Fall 2006 and is a member of the Ancient Syriac-Maronite, Roman Catholic Church, a Church that traces its ancestry back to the Apostles and that still uses the language of Christ in their Liturgy.  His wife is a native of Lebanon, and he is of Lebanese descent but born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah.  He and his wife are the proud parents of four children. 


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