The Physical and Psychic Truths of Science and Religion

I wrote the following a couple of weeks ago after a series of conversations with other Princeton Theological Seminary students taking summer language.  “This past few weeks at seminary has taken some adjustment.  I feel I am coming from the opposite side of the room in many conversations I have had so far with classmates.  That is okay, in diversity lies the beauty of life.  A significant issue that I am struggling with now is where do I fit in the church?  I can see both sides of the liberal/conservative fence.  The question is where do I plant my feet?  Can I straddle it?  When asked, as I was this week by a classmate, “As a scientist, do you believe in miracles?”  I can honestly answer, “Yes.”  Do I believe that the hand of an anthropomorphic superhuman God can reach down from the sky and heal the wounds of a leper?  No.  Do I believe that God can heal the spirit of a man or woman giving him or her a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in life?  Yes.  Do I believe that God can heal the brain?  No, that is the job of psychiatry.  Can He heal the mind?  Yes, absolutely.  The subtlety of language is the difference.  It is my hope that writing about the thoughts that arise in meditation, discussion, and in solitary contemplation will help guide me in spiritual development in seminary.  Indeed, the force that Christians call God has a place in this process.  However, I still struggle to fully embrace that term for want of a more universal word for the reason that the anthropomorphic terminology of the three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) points to the same reality as pointed to by the Asiatic religious traditions (e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, etc.) or to the limits of modern science.  To be absolutely clear, there is one reality that all language must map to that can only be truly physically understood by modern science.  The psychic understanding of reality, meaning the way the mind interprets the world can be shaped and formed by modern science as it can be by religion.

I am glossing over quite a profound point that I will only briefly touch on, all physical truths can map to a psychic truth provided a sufficiently clever scientific experiment can be done to reveal this particular truth.   Indeed, this is why modern science is so difficult!  Some physical truths require extremely difficult experiments to be revealed and some experiments are beyond the limits of modern technology.  The same is true for psychic truths since the mind is the brain.  All psychic truths may map to a physical truth about the neurophysiological state of the brain.  However, modern science is certainly in its infancy in this regard.  It is very difficult to study the neurophysiology of a living human being in an ethical manner! (i.e. we cannot ethically open the head of a thinking living human being while performing a “meaningful” behavior such as worshiping God.  To this end, new forms of neuroimaging may provide novel insights.)  How physical states of the brain map to psychic experience is a topic that is much too complex for this blog post.  I go into such detail with this because I do think it is important to think about the physical state of the brain influencing psychic truths for purposes that will become clear in future writings (e.g. mental disorders, psychoactive drug use, and psychopharmacology).

As long as I can articulate what I mean by “God” to others before I actually use it in a meaningful way, I believe that I can avoid tribalism.  To be clear, however, I do not believe Christianity is the sole divine path for humanity.  Rather, it is a cultural construct.  One of a set of similar cultural constructs defined as “Religions.”  A set of practices of a group of individuals who share certain beliefs about causation in the cosmos and about the identity of human salvation, ethics, and purpose.  More remains to be said on this topic in later blog posts.  For now, I will say that I have a profound respect for the Christian tradition as a route to spiritual salvation for those capable of accepting and internalizing the spiritual archetypes and metaphors contained in its key texts (i.e. the books of the Bible).  Seminary is a funny place, the academics are important; they embody the wisdom and knowledge of those who have come before. Generations have fought to preserve and extend this knowledge, sometimes sacrificing their lives to bring it to the next generation. Why?”

The majority of students I have talked to so far are not scientists and tend to have a different perspective on religious topics than I do.  I would say that they appear to have more spiritual liberty, knowing less of what modern science has deemed a “Theory” or a “Law.”  As a result, they possess a greater cognitive freedom to accept certain postulates of faith as physical truth than I do.  For many of the key “events” in the Christian narrative such as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, I reject their physical truth but accept their psychic truth in the mind of the believer.  A significant goal of mine in seminary is to construct a theology that will enable me to speak in a reasonable and constructive way about Christian practices and beliefs to atheists, to Christians, and to those of other faith traditions.  Furthermore, I wish to speak about these practices as someone who does find transcendence within the tradition.  I do not wish to strip Christianity of its metaphysical, spiritual, and psychic power.  To this end, I made a significant discovery today.  Carl Jung wrote many books on Eastern and Western religion, and in particular on Christianity.

The opening passage of Carl Jung’s book Answer to Job resonated with me today as it eloquently articulated the distinction between the physical truth of religious statements and their psychic truth.  “On account of its somewhat unusual content, my little book requires a short preface.  I beg of you, dear reader, not to overlook it.  For, in what follows, I shall speak of the venerable objects of religious belief.  Whoever talks of such matters inevitably runs the risk of being torn to pieces by the two parties who are in mortal conflict about those very things.  This conflict is due to the strange supposition that a thing is true only if it presents itself as a physical fact.  Thus some people believe it to be physically true that Christ was born as the son of a virgin, while others deny this as a physical impossibility.  Everyone can see that there is no logical solution to this conflict and that one who do better not to get involved in such sterile disputes.  Both are right and both are wrong.  Yet they could easily reach agreement if only they dropped the word “physical.”  “Physical” is not the only criterion of truth: there are also psychic truths, which can neither be explained nor proved nor contested in any physical way.  If, for instance, a general belief existed that the river Rhine had at one time flowed backwards from its mouth to its source, then this belief would in itself be a fact even through such an assertion, physically understood, would be deemed utterly incredible.  Beliefs of this kind are psychic facts which cannot be contested and need no proof.”  To read more of this passage by Jung go here.  If you have read this blog post you will see that I tend to disagree with his statement about the fact that psychic truths are not provable.  They are provable provided one can map them to a neurophysiological state of the brain.  However, on a course level it is clear what Jung is after in this distinction is the the statement that physical truths are outside the brain and psychic truths are inside the brain.  If Jung were alive today with the modern tools of neuroimaging, he might have felt it necessary to explain this point more clearly.  I will forgive him for now, but for future discussions and writings this will need to be articulated more clearly.  🙂

A significant theological question that arose from a discussion about this topic over ice cream today is, “Who are humans accountable for their sin if God is only a psychic reality?”  There is a possible answer to this question that immediately comes to mind.  First, the term God most certainly maps in some way to both the physical and the psychic realities.  The way I think of this is via a metaphor (the cosmic chess game) of T. H. Huxley, “The chess-board is the world; the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature.  The player on the other side is hidden from us.  We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient.  But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance.”  This metaphor obviously posits an anthropomorphic being on the other side of the chess board-cosmos but the key point of the metaphor is “The player on the other side is hidden from us.”  As human beings with finite sensory capabilities and finite minds, we are free as individuals and as societies to ascribe any psychic truth to this “player” as seems reasonable.  For religious purposes, as is done in Abrahamic faiths and to some extent in Asiatic traditions, it is much easier for an individual to anthropomorphize “the player” for relational purposes.  However, it is not necessary.  Some religious traditions, such as Zen Buddhism attribute absolute nothingness (emptiness – sunyata) a divine character.  Sunyata is not God, but both are similar in that they attempt to construct cognitive structures that can map to the unknowable “player.”  Second, human accountability for sin is at the heart a social phenomenon in time.  Since societies of believers through out history have constructed a set of narratives, scripture, articulating the practices of a religion it is the society (or more specifically the religious group) that defines what constitutes a sinful action.  For the Christian brought up on the idea that Biblical scripture is “inspired by God” it is certainly possible to state that God has inspired scripture if one accepts this perspective.  The authors of the scripture simply interpreted certain events in the cosmic chess-game and wrote a text with these interpretations.

There are no texts that are the literal word of God, texts are psychic truths derived from an author’s or a community’s interpretation of physical truths.  As they are constructed in time, often times these texts evolve to contain other psychic truths not directly derived from the interpretation of a physical truth.  For example, Adam and Eve both embody the reality of the human form (physical truth).  However, it is highly unlikely given what we know about human biology for Adam to have been directly made from the dust of the ground and Eve to be made directly from Adam’s rib (this may point to a particular psychic truth the author of Genesis held about the nature of the sexes).  Thus, sin is relative.  “There is nothing outside the text,” the text and its interpretations define the nature of sin for a given religious community.  For Muslims the Qur’an, for Christians the Bible, etc. …  Emphasizing the human origin of scripture does not make sin easily permissible, it can still be as verboten as if it were defined directly by an angel descending from the sky.  For myself, I find it helpful to think that the truths contained in a text such as the Bible were selected for by a process of Darwinian evolution within a set of humans minds.  Just as the causal agent in the cosmic chess game is “unknowable,” the causal agent of the Bible’s evolution is ultimately unknowable – two equally likely possibilities are absolute nothingness or God.  Both an atheist and a Christian have equally probable (but different) explanations for the causal agent, but they both can agree that the text itself is the result of evolution as described.  Just as many Christians are arriving upon the position of theistic evolution for living beings, one may apply the same principles to the evolution of psychic truths contained in texts.  For more on this topic see the book Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life.  By carefully observing what theologians and neo-Darwinians are currently saying, one may construct a Christian theology of creation that includes the emergence of the Bible within its explanatory framework.  For individuals in other religious traditions, a similar act is possible.

Did God build the mountains in the photograph above?  If so, how?

This type of question might lead to the articulation of a psychic truth.

Did earth exude these mountains in the photograph above from its crust due to the movement of magna in the interior of the planet?  If so, how?

This type of question might lead to the articulation of a physical truth.

The next topic that this blog post leads me to start to think about is neurotheology.

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About kayaerbil

I am a Berkeley educated chemistry Ph.D. who is moving into the area of working on developing appropriate technology for communities that are subjected to socio-economic oppression. The goal is to use simple and effective designs to empower people to live better lives. Currently, I am working with Native Americans on Pine Ridge, the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. I am working with a Native owned and run solar energy company. We are currently working on building a compressed earth block (CEB) house that showcases many of the technologies that the company has developed. The CEB house is made of locally derived resources, earth from the reservation. The blocks are naturally thermally insulating, keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Eventually, a solar air heater and photovoltaic panels will be installed into the house to power the home and keep it warm, while preserving the house off the grid. A side project while in Pine Ridge is a solar computer. I hope to learn about blockchain encryption software for building microgrids. In addition, it is an immediate interest of mine to involve local youth in technology education.
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