The Role of Imagery, Particularly Scientific Imagery, in Transdisciplinary Dialogue
As a scientist whose studies began in the arts, I have always been interested in interdisciplinary approaches to coming to know. And, although educators today tend to offer more interdisciplinary courses, it seems that disciplinary specialization continues to hold fort. It is still difficult to come away from an interdisciplinary dialogue with an integrated view of the world. Veritable chasms separate the ways of knowing from one another. Each has its own assumptions, its own methods, its own jargon. Although the strategy of divide and conquer that has developed slowly over the years has proven fruitful in advancing the frontiers of knowledge, it has, at the same time, promoted the illusion that each way of knowing forms a complete system, uncoupled from the rest. In fact, it has even established a hierarchy among the disciplines, more recently ranking them according to how concrete the evidence that substantiates their truth claims. Although many scientists are convinced that science as it is practiced cannot deal with ultimate questions of meaning, origins, and values,1 others continue to find in the scientific method the ultimate approach to knowing. Rather than weaving together the many threads of our knowledge, this approach has flattened our understanding of things. What we need today are ways to transcend disciplinary barriers while still honoring the individual disciplines.
The illusion of disciplinary imperialism is slowly being dethroned. Today, global problems, such as the environment, global economics, and world hunger, are forcing us to cross the disciplinary divide, encouraging us to transcend somewhat arbitrary boundaries, making obvious the need for transdisciplinary dialogue. Yet, bridges across the chasms that separate these many worlds are not easily constructed.
Interdisciplinary crossover is not a complete stranger. Biophysics, paleoanthropology, and ecology are legitimate and well-established fields of study. But, somehow, each new alliance quickly becomes another specialty with rigid boundaries and prescribed methods.
I would like to explore the suggestion that, if we take them more seriously, the arts, particularly the language of poetic metaphor and the imagery of the visual arts, could help us to further our ability to link creatively the content of our disparate ways of knowing in a new and interesting fashion and provide us with ways of looking more deeply at the world around us as well as into the worlds within and beyond us. Unlike the mathematical and physical sciences, fields that, by definition, are quantitative and utilize processes that are mathematically rigorous, poetry enjoys a certain freedom from the constraints of rational thought and thrives on language that is multilayered and ambiguous. Poetry and art explore, illustrate, and animate what we already know, helping us to formulate what is truly meaningful; they confront us “with hidden aspects of [our] own mind and [our] own culture,”2 and, at their best, facilitate our grasping insights that are on the threshold of consciousness, encouraging paradigm shifts even before they can be articulated.3 Metaphors carry a raft of nuances and associations. Because of their multilevel referencing, well-constructed images are able to plumb the layers of our knowledge and provide connections between entities that otherwise appear paradoxical.
However, images will certainly never eliminate the need for rigorous disciplinary effort. I suggest instead that they might give us a more holistic way of looking at the content from these disparate ways of knowing. Commenting as artist Danielle Boutet reminded us in her paper “Epistemic Companions: Art and the Sacred,” “the metaphor does not deconstruct or tear apart the system it looks at (as the scientific method does); [instead] the vision it brings forth is an integrated one.”4
Not all images are powerful enough to accomplish this deeper kind of integration. In order to perform such a difficult task, an image must satisfy certain constraints. First of all, it must be relevant, somehow situated within the experience of those who are to be impacted by it. It must also resonate with the listener at several layers especially those it tries to integrate. In order to be effective, it must be appealing and must connect with our inner and outer sense of the way things are.
Because, in our day, scientific authority carries such weight and because “the West has [traditionally] excluded metaphor from the domain of reason,”5 it seems strategic to begin this attempt at integration with scientific images and metaphors as a vehicle. Such scientifically-based metaphors take science seriously while, at the same time, encouraging us to look beneath the surface of the phenomenon into its very depths. These metaphors might even play the role of quasi-physical models. Like the superstrings used by physicists to describe the material structure of the cosmos many orders of magnitude below the surface, they help us to visualize the numinous structure of the cosmos which is so difficult to deal with because of its apparent invisibility. Yet, like the models found in science, such images will never be adequate. Metaphors are maps, not the thing itself,6 which, if we allow for transcendence, is unreachable. And, like maps, good metaphor simply points us in a direction. Thus, to be effective, metaphor needs constantly to be reworked, extended, and sometimes even abandoned.
The danger attending the use of imagery of any kind is the tendency we have to take an image literally, to freeze it onto a single layer, thereby removing the ambiguity that is its virtue. Becoming fixated on a single aspect of the image without allowing it to reveal a deeper meaning or relating it somehow to our inner experience destroys its power to connect. Instead, an image must be held lightly and explored deeply.7
As we continue to search for transdisciplinary ways of knowing, I suggest that we examine previous attempts by scholars to use scientific imagery in order to explore its effectiveness and power. As an example, I will discuss the work of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I will point out how such scientific metaphors gave him access to hidden layers of reality and allowed him to integrate several seemingly disparate layers into a new sense of the whole.
Teilhard developed a deep love for rock as a young child and worked for most of his life as a geologist and paleontologist collecting fossils and studying rock formations throughout much of Europe and Asia. His pantheistic and contemplative nature was drawn to Earth’s beauty. Even when he hardly noticed the scene,8 his awareness of its presence gave him great joy. He knew the landscape to a remarkable degree and developed a profound intimacy with Earth. For many years, he worked tirelessly in the “Peking Man” project in China and had the good fortune to visit the sites of most of the early hominid discoveries throughout the world as well as to view the Upper Paleolithic art found in caves located in southern France and northern Spain. As a skilled stratigrapher, one of his tasks was to study the layers of sedimentary rock at a site to learn their age and the age of the fossils embedded within their layers. With this information he could determine the sequence of geologic events at the site and develop a map of its history. His long years of contact with the terrain of China helped him to take in the grandeur and beauty of Earth and its phenomena as a whole.9 These experiences of Earth’s dynamic nature, coupled with his own deeply mystical nature, heightened his experience of Earth’s sacredness and gave him access to what he called “the within [or inside] of things.”10
. . . everywhere in the stuff of the universe there necessarily exists an internal conscious face lining the external “material” face, habitually the only one considered by science. Can we go further and define the rules according to which this second, most often hidden, face comes to shine through?11
Although he obviously valued the insights and theories that are the fruit of scientific endeavor, this did not keep him from asking questions about the limits to science as it was practiced in his day. He wondered whether science had “ever bothered . . . to look at the world except from the outside of things.”12 He refused to exclude his experience of the interiority and subjectivity of nature,13 and insisted that the stuff of the universe is bifacial.14 He looked at the world with what John Haught calls binocular or stereoscopic vision.15 Just as looking through two eyes adds depth to our visual perception, so the stereoscopic way of looking at things through several lenses at once adds depth to our worldview.
The dynamic nature and spiritual power of matter that Teilhard experienced in the field seemed so obvious to him. He delighted in finding harmony between the visible and invisible worlds, to experience them as a single whole, and expected that others would too.16 It was his sensitivity to this kind of harmony that he wished to communicate to anyone who would engage the topic. Yet, he found it almost impossible to transmit the perception of a quality, a taste through words alone. Instead, he said, it needs “a dance, a song, a cry.”17 In an effort to share his profound experience of the evolutionary story of the cosmos that he was reading in rock and fossil, Teilhard found it helpful to turn to the arts. Despite the value he placed on the scientific method, it was the arts rather than rational arguments that were, for him, capable of giving a face to “the anxieties, the hopes, and the enthusiasm of humanity.”18 Together, the lenses of poetry and science provided him with a more truly stereoscopic view of the world.
Teilhard frequently reflected on the arts. Some of his dearest friends were poets and artists. He named three very necessary functions that the arts provide to society. First of all, he says, artists of all kinds express the deep intuition which is fermenting in society but which, as yet, cannot be articulated; secondly, artists intellectualize that intuition, that is, they begin to formulate concepts through their work; and, finally, they are capable of directing the spiritual energy which was at the core of the primary intuition.19 He felt that beauty and harmony are not the purview of artists only. Like many scientists, Teilhard recognized that beauty and harmony not only allured them into their study of science but also are often the heralds and generators of their ideas. As Einstein once said, “The longing to behold harmony is the source of the inexhaustible patience and perseverance with which [the physicist] devote[s] himself.”20 Although difficult to define and to evaluate, especially since standards depend on culture and prevailing practice, harmony and beauty often point the way to fruitful theories.
Perception happens, according to Teilhard, when “the subjective point of view coincide[s] with the objective distribution of things.”21 However, to experience the coincidence of subject and object, we must continually reshape our understanding of the transcendent as our picture of the physical world changes. We must continually adjust our spirituality to the new shape of the universe.22 Or, using his metaphor, like this crab, we must frequently molt if we are to continue to live.23
Teilhard appreciated deeply the wisdom of his religious tradition but bemoaned the fact that its core had become encrusted with irrelevant layers. He hoped to free it from these barnacles and to reenergize it so that it could become relevant once again. He was particularly interested in reshaping the Christian understanding of the world so that it would conform more closely to the evolutionary picture that inspired him so much. In order to do this, he contemplated what he knew about the physical world to see what sense he could make of his spiritual experience.
It is interesting to situate Teilhard’s approach to spirituality within the spiritual practice of his day. Unlike most Eastern traditions, where the mystic empties the mind of thought, and most Western traditions, where the mystic withdraws from activity in the world, Teilhard’s mysticism happens in the midst of activity, in the very act of coming to know.24 However, this approach is consistent with Teilhard’s Jesuit spirituality. St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, encouraged his followers to find Christ in all things, to experience God in the midst of activity. Yet, Teilhard’s approach, “Communion with God through the World,” is a unique reworking of this instruction. For him, the moment of perception, the mystical moment happens in the midst of activity. And at such moments, Teilhard found himself totally immersed in God.
Although his creative approach to the synthesis of evolution with his religious beliefs appealed to many both inside and outside his religious and scientific communities, he failed to make the impact that he had hoped for. Those who misunderstood his method and read his images literally discounted his approach as less than scientific. Yet, he never claimed to be doing ordinary science. He shares his dilemma with a friend:
. . . what I desire to propagate is a certain taste, a certain perception of the beauty, the pathos, and the unity of being. This may even account for the incomprehension I encounter. . . but these theories matter to me only by their vibrations in the province of soul which is not that of intellectualism. Those who do not hear the fundamental harmony of the universe are confused or angry.25
Perhaps the confusion arose partly from his calling his efforts hyperphysics; that is, a science. For those who discount ways of knowing other than those that science endorses, Teilhard’s term, hyperphysics, is an anomaly.
Teilhard’s use of scientific imagery is broad. He was always fascinated, for instance, by the content of the physics curriculum that, as a young Jesuit, he taught to high school students in Cairo, Egypt. Throughout his life, he continued to follow breakthroughs in physics and eventually called his attempt at synthesis hyperphysics, meaning a new and broader kind of physics that would allow for the presence of mind. As he comments in his biographical essay, “The Heart of Matter,” written five years before his death,
I find it difficult to express how much I feel at home in precisely this world of electrons, nuclei, waves, and what a sense of plenitude and comfort it gives me . . . It was surely there that I met those very ‘archetypes’ which . . . I still use . . . when I try to express for my own satisfaction precisely what I mean.26
Like present-day physicists who construct theories of matter from superstrings, elementary particles, and electromagnetic waves and fields that are invisible to the eye, Teilhard used scientific images as a bridge to unify the material and spiritual aspects of our experience and to point to the relational character of the Divine. He drew on topics from optics to refer to the divine presence that permeates the cosmos; acoustics, to focus on divine communication; field theory, to depict divine action; and thermodynamics to model our transformation into God.
However, Teilhard used evolution as the metaphor of metaphors. Evolution for him was broader than biological evolution. It encompassed cosmic evolution and was synonymous with the interconnected development of Matter and Spirit. His religious essays demonstrate that the dynamics of the evolutionary process determined the images that he chose and colored the way he understood his experience not only of his theology and his spirituality but also of himself as a human person. Evolution provided him a contemplative pathway into the spiritual realm. In his major opus, The Human Phenomenon, Teilhard, in the spirit of Dante, leads his readers into the bowels of biological spacetime, urging them to look beneath the surface of the phenomenon as they proceed. Sarah Appleton-Weber, the poet who has recently provided an improved English translation of this work, calls The Human Phenomenon a synthesis of poetry and science.27 I would rather suggest that The Human Phenomenon is a synthesis carried out by means of scientific imagery.
In a previous paper, I shared Teilhard’s image of the cosmos as an evolving tapestry which at base is, surprisingly, a scientific metaphor. Teilhard’s cosmic tapestry threads trace out, through biological spacetime, the trajectories of the elementary particles formed near the beginning of time, constructing, as they respond to attractive and repulsive forces, the wonderful diversity and novelty that we see in our world. This metaphor connects well with the recent findings of nonlinear dynamics and complexity theory, of which Teilhard would have been unaware, and presents in a nutshell what he believed about the complementary natures of spirit and matter. This afternoon, I would like to discuss several insights that Teilhard gained from treating evolution as both an image and a scientific theory. His method allows the outer surface of evolution to reveal something of both its inner surface and its potentially transcendent character. The first of these insights is his theory of Creative Union.
From Teilhard’s point of view, while science is generally analytic, evolution is, on average, synthetic. During the almost 14 billion years since the initial Big Bang, matter has evolved considerably beyond the elementary particles that were present in the early universe. Matter adapts to the conditions of its environment by building on what it finds there. Otherwise, it fails to survive in its present form. More complex forms develop from forms that precede them. As time elapses, new levels of complexity emerge. Scientists have discovered the universal laws that govern much of this complexification: the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, and gravity.
Teilhard noticed a pattern in this complexification process: at every level of the cosmic hierarchy, novelty arises from some form of bonding. In order to make something new, particles of matter approach one another, become attached to one another, and hold together. Teilhard differentiated two types of union. The more primitive form occurs when atoms aggregate to form a crystal or the gases in a star hold together due to gravity. The bonds between individual members of the crystal or star are relatively weak and can break apart. The identity of the crystal in no way depends on the persistence of the relationship of every member of the crystal to the other. If part of it is broken off from the rest, the identity of the crystal is not destroyed.
A deeper form of union occurs in the fusion process when nuclei respond to the strong nuclear force. In this case, the participating nuclei share a more permanent bond with each another and become something altogether new, no longer simply an aggregate of the same kind of matter. The strong nuclear force is able to transform and to sustain the nucleus that it creates, one with different properties from its constituents. Teilhard noticed that a similar type of union occurs at many other levels of the cosmic hierarchy. It occurs when atoms form molecules, when molecules form cells, when cells form organisms, and, with the coming of sexual reproduction in plants and animals, when egg and sperm join to form a new individual. He was particularly fascinated by the ubiquity of this pattern and considered how it applied to the latest step in evolution, from sentient life to thought. What is significant is that the entities that unite are not destroyed. Rather, they preserve their identity while becoming something more.28 Teilhard states this succinctly: “Union differentiates.”29
According to Teilhard, this second type of union is the general pattern by which more centered, more complex forms are born in the evolutionary universe. Teilhard calls this second type of union, Creative Union.30 He notes that “increasingly higher centrations . . . cause the appearance of increasingly wider and better centered wholes,”31 that is, complexity arises because of intimate relationship. According to him, creative union drives the evolutionary process.
Teilhard extrapolates the theory of Creative Union in order to gain insight into areas not accessible to purely scientific reasoning. He notices that the centering process intensifies at the human level. At this level, the level of self-conscious being, physical forces such as gravity and electromagnetism are no longer solely responsible for the attraction and repulsion experienced between persons. Instead, the force of love, that complex spiritual force of attraction, is at work encouraging bonds between and among humans. This interpersonal bonding process extends evolution beyond the biological to the social, cultural, religious, and political systems that attempt to draw persons into unity.
Teilhard discerns the qualitative laws of growth32 for fuller being. For matter, “to be more is to be more fully united with more,” so that complexity (a characteristic that is hard to quantify) is the measure of matter’s being. For human persons capable of self-reflection, “to be more is more fully to unite more.” Note the active nature of this second statement. It suggests that the one who is fully alive is the one who, like the integrator, is creative and innovative, drawing together persons, places, and things as well as information and knowledge, from what is available in the environment. For Teilhard, creativity is a sign of fullness of being.
Since propensity for union is not unique to the human but has been present since the beginning, Teilhard reasons that humans are not unique in the fact that they possess a spiritual component. He says, “If some internal propensity to unity did not exist, even in the molecule, in probably some incredibly rudimentary yet already nascent state, it would be physically impossible for love to appear . . . in ourselves.”33 Therefore, he conjectures that “Atoms, electrons, elementary particles . . . must possess the rudiments of immanence . . . they must have a spark of spirit.”34 He blames the difficulty we experience in grasping the phenomenon of spirit on our focus on the individual and on our inability to take in collective realities.35
Teilhard considers the source of the energy that could possibly propel this form of evolution, especially at the human level. Just as nuclei need the short range strong nuclear force to overcome long range electromagnetic repulsion to bring them together, and just as gravity draws into a center the gas and dust that will eventually form each of the stars, the spirit of Earth needs a powerful concentrating agent, a force of attraction, to draw the gas and dust of humanity into a common center and to increase its power of acting as one.36 The only force capable of such a lofty synthesis is love, Creative Union in its present fullness. Furthermore, love has evolutionary significance for humanity.37 Love not only unites without depersonalizing; in uniting it ultra-personalizes.38 Teilhard says, “Driven by forces of love, the fragments of the world are seeking one another so the world may come to be.”39 The world that he envisions is a world in which union not only prevails but also creates new possibilities. Teilhard realized that nothing less than a personal center would be capable of satisfying the longing of the human heart, of drawing all things into one. Only a center of universal consciousness, the actualized super-personal unifying force of love, is capable of attracting the hearts of humanity.40 He names this source of evolutionary energy Omega, and identifies Omega with the Cosmic Christ.
As anyone who has entered into a relationship with another knows, the road to union is not an easy one. The evolutionary climb that matter has been experiencing throughout these 14 billion years is rugged and steep. To find paths that lead forward, the cosmos has been trying everything it can as it has proceeded from disparate particles to conscious life. In order to ascend the slopes, Teilhard encourages humanity to try everything, to plunge into the fire of the purifying battle for being. He images the intensity of this struggle against diminishment with the image of what he calls the royal road to Calvary. “Nothing resembles the way of the Cross,” says Teilhard, “as much as the human epic.”41 Projected onto a universe in which struggle against evil is the sine qua non of existence, the cross takes on new importance and beauty.42
Teilhard explores the metaphor of evolution with another scientific image. “The world is made up of successive zones,” he says, “escalated planes of concentric spheres of existence, giving access one to another.”43 The spheres that Teilhard refers to are well known to science: the barysphere, the central core of Earth, the lithosphere, its crust and innermost mantle, the hydrosphere, the oceans and other surface water, the atmosphere, and the biosphere, a term first used by Eduard Seuss in 1875 to describe the layer of living things that surround Earth’s surface.
Imaging Earth as divided into approximately spherical shells was natural for Teilhard. His main task as stratigrapher was to identify the age of the rock found in a particular layer of Earth’s crust and to draw the relevant contour map. This information was extremely helpful to other paleontologists who were then able to estimate the age of the fossils present in a particular stratum. One of Teilhard’s major contributions to the “Peking Man” project was to classify age-wise the strata at the Chou-Kou-Tien site where researchers found skeletal bones, including teeth and skulls, belonging to Peking Man as well as the stone implements that he used. Information that Teilhard amassed about the age and content of the strata at Chou-Kou-Tien helped the research team determine the most fruitful place to begin excavating. Roughly speaking, each of Earth’s layers holds the story of an era. Thus, to dig more deeply generally means to dig further into the past. And to reverse one’s direction is to move in the direction of the future.
Yet, despite the simplicity of the concentric sphere model, Teilhard lamented that “science sees only the outer crust of things,”44 that there was no place in science for thought and mind. To make up for this lack of attention to “the inside of things,” Teilhard, in company with his friend Edouard LeRoy, extrapolated from this cascade of concentric spherical shells and added another to the ensemble, the layer of mind or spirit.45 This additional layer, the noosphere, is the thinking envelope of the biosphere, the sphere of reflection and of conscious invention. It is in this tenuous envelope of mind that human evolution continues.46 The noosphere is the sphere in which love and thought are nurtured and grow.
However, if, like the biosphere, the noosphere, the Spirit of Earth, develops from what it finds in its environment, then this once again requires postulating the presence of spirit in all of matter from the simplest to the most complex. Teilhard asserts that consciousness or spirit is present and capable of growing only in proportion to the complexity of the matter of which it is part. Deeper union implies greater intensity of spirit and ensures greater integrity, more freedom, and greater spontaneity. Teilhard senses that unity “is the state of equilibrium towards which beings tend as they become spiritual”47 and is the goal towards which the cosmos is slowly converging.
It is interesting to note that while digging into the bowels of the impenetrable Earth,48 Teilhard was also trying to “penetrate into the depths of things,”49 to penetrate into the heart of matter to see What or Who is at its heart. As he once wrote to one of his friends, “For me, geology is like a root that pushes me with its sap toward the human questions: unification, prospection, and organization (especially psychological) of the human stratum. I cannot live outside this realm.”50 Ironically, his career as a prospector in the field of the past which immersed him into the bowels of matter reversed his direction and projected him into the study of spirit and into concern for the future of humanity. He eventually turned his attention to consideration of the great work that humanity must accomplish if it expects to bring about the completion of all things in Christ, Omega.
Teilhard’s double movement, into the bowels of Earth and out to the world, mimics both the Incarnation and that symbol of the Incarnation, the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Just as Christ immersed himself in the waters of the Jordan to bless the forces of nature and, as he emerges, to elevate the whole world, so in the Incarnation, Christ immersed himself in matter, and now draws all things to himself.51
Teilhard was interested in the whole of the phenomenon. He focused on synthesis since this is what he found lacking in the modern reductionist approach to knowing. He tried to connect what he knew about the cosmos with his experience of spirit so that it formed a unified vision. He dedicated his life to leading others to what he called that “naturally advantageous panoramic point”52 where all is one. The metaphors that he used provide insight into questions that are deeper than the questions that science asks about the material world. They are capable of connecting the emergence that we experience in matter with its complement in spirit. Spirit and matter, the within and the without become two sides of a single piece of cloth; two aspects of a single act of knowing. What happens in the vastness of the universe has its counterpart in the depths of our being. We learn about the within by contemplating the without.
Teilhard’s approach to synthesis is appealing. His images have the power to move us because they are so rooted in the fabric of the cosmos, in the dynamic processes at work within our psyches, our bodies, our societies, our Earth. They resonate with our experience of the cosmos. They act as a bridge, connecting spirit and matter in a single image. They situate us within the cosmic becoming, calling us “consciously to share in the great work that goes on within it.”53 And, they help us to imagine what is truly happening at the heart of the cosmos.
2 George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 203. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Towards the Future, trans. RenÈ Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 214.
4 Danielle Boutet, “Epistemic Companions: Art and the Sacred,” presented at Metanexus Conference; Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue, June 2007. Available at https://www.metanexus.net/conference2007/abstract/Default.aspx?id=382.