MARCH 31, 2003
Martin E. Marty
Most Americans spent their wartime Sunday eight days ago doing mainly ordinary things: going to church, not going to church, spending time with the children, reading, watching TV. Many others did extraordinary things, far from media and the public eye. I came across some scientists, philosophers, educators, and theologians who were handling what some regard as the greatest challenge to religion in our time.
With funding and hospitality from the John Templeton Foundation, the tireless inspirer of endeavors at the juncture of religion and science, Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, arrayed some of its talent and attracted others. At an aftermath meeting last Tuesday I heard participants speak about or report on one dimension of the concept "Emergence," the conference theme having been "Becoming Human: Brain, Mind and Emergence." They are motivated by a concern to deal with "an evident paradox at the heart of human life," heightened now because of neurobiological discoveries. "How did meaning and moral awareness spring forth within a material order of natural ends?"
Whole schools of inquiry in the sciences and some in the humanities, focusing on the obvious material makeup of the brain, often "reduce" the human to material components and neuron firings. They contend that humans are "nothing but" instruments for these material objects to do their workings. If the reductionists are simply right, their challenge to humanism and religion and theology is more drastic than were the challenges of Copernicus, Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Someone should be paying attention to the religious consequences of such. The Templeton people, the Stanford researchers, and others gathered from around the world are among those taking up the challenge. They seem a modest lot, but they ask giant questions: is it going to be possible to know how consciousness arises in the material world? Will we soon, or ever, know? Are spirituality, faith, mysticism and religion "nothing but. . . ." e.g., highly programmed computers' projections, the result of neuron "firings?"
Some quoted a kind of conference mantra by Ursula Goodenough to describe "Emergence": "'Something more' from 'Nothing but.'" What is behind the move from "it" to "I"? Some conferees were clear: they regard the quest to define and guard the particularly human to be a task for many in times when reductionism often rules. No, they insisted, they were not defending "the god of the gaps" that comes in to fill in where human knowledge gives out and ignorance begins. Dealing with "emergence" is a risky and urgent endeavor.