When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race,
How should we dream of this place without us?—
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on a stone’s face?
—Richard Wilbur, “Advice to a Prophet”
When Richard Wilbur wrote “Advice to the Prophet” at the height of the Cold War, there was a very real possibility that human life and consciousness would cease to exist on Earth after the United States and the Soviet Union unleashed the destructive energy in their nuclear arsenals. According to Wilbur, the prophet who could prevent this tragedy would arrive on the “streets of our cities/ Mad-eyed from stating” the “obvious” scientific truths about the horrors of nuclear war. One piece of advice Wilbur gives his prophet is to “Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range” because we are “Unable to fear what is too strange.” His rationale for giving this advice is that we cannot conceive of a place where nothing would be aware of its own awareness and the beauty and wonder of the natural world would cease to exist: “How should we dream of this place without us?—The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,/A stone look on the stone’s face.” Wilbur then tells the prophet that if he can entice people on the streets of our cities into renewing their sense of the sacredness, sanctity, and beauty of life, the dream of Earth with us can be realized.
Environmental scientists are now mad-eyed from stating obvious scientific truths about the threats associated with the environmental crisis. And many of them are convinced that it is highly probable that our species will be on the path toward extinction if global warming triggers irreversible large-scale changes in the climate system. These modern-day Cassandras are also painfully aware that their scientific truths have not been heard by the people on the streets of our cities. And one reason why this is the case is that the people on these streets, like those in Wilbur’s poem, are “unable to fear what is too strange” and cannot “dream of this place without us.”
But unlike Wilbur’s prophet, the scientific prophets must stand outside the gates of the cities where the climate change contrarians are winning the political debate about global warming by lying about the truths of science. Not surprisingly, these scientists are increasingly convinced that the fate of Earth is sealed by the ignorance, lack of compassion, and inexhaustible greed of its human inhabitants. And since they are reminded on a daily basis that a great deal of scientific research clearly indicates that human life could soon become little more than a brutal struggle for survival, all of them are extremely anxious, and most seem to have one or more symptoms of clinical depression.
But what my scientific colleagues have apparently failed to realize is that it is possible to dream of this place with us. And if we manage to realize this dream, we could soon find ourselves living in a much more humane and equitable world. In this world, human populations would cease over time to suffer from the ravages of hunger, starvation, and disease; extreme and hopeless poverty would no longer be tolerated or ignored; the rights and freedoms now enjoyed by the citizens of fully functional democracies would be extended to the rest of humanity; and cross-border conflicts and wars of aggression would be viewed as remnants of a benighted human past that have no place or function in the vastly more enlightened human future.
The reason why the realization of this dream could result in this more humane and equitable world is obvious in spite of the fact that it is rarely mentioned in the public debate about the environmental crisis: If there is not a very active commitment to creating this world during every stage in the process of resolving this crisis, it will not be possible to achieve the totally unprecedented level of good will and cooperation between all peoples and governments required to implement scientifically viable solutions for global warming and other menacing environmental problems.
Realists and pragmatists have routinely dismissed dreams of a better world as the products of the overheated imaginations of muddle-headed idealists who fail to recognize or properly understand what the critics regard as self-evident truths—the more invidious aspects of human nature, the harsh realities of geopolitical politics, the intimate connection between economic prosperity and competitive advantage, the vital role and function of a strong military in protecting and enhancing the interests of sovereign nation-states, and so on. The problem with this conventional wisdom is that the usual distinctions between idealism and realism, moral actions and pragmatic solutions, and idealistic conceptions of the better world that could be versus rational assessments of the world as it is are no longer commensurate with the terms of human survival. What these terms dictate is that idealism must be the new realism, that moral actions are the only means of achieving pragmatic solutions, and that idealistic conceptions of the better world that could be are the only rational basis for preserving and protecting the natural resources that sustain human life.
The Truths of Science and Religion
There is now a large and growing consensus in the environmental community that preventing an ecological disaster on a truly apocalyptic scale will require both a massive transformation of our political and economic institutions and new standards for moral and ethical behavior. In the early 1990s, thirty-four internationally known scientists realized this is the case and wrote an “Open Letter to the Religious Community,” appealing to environmentally concerned people in the great religious traditions to create a worldwide religious movement dedicated to the resolution of the environmental crisis. This appeal was taken seriously, and religious environmentalism is now a worldwide movement of alliances between people in different faith traditions, loose networks of spiritually motivated activists, and coalitions with secular environmental organizations. There are hundreds of groups of religious environmentalists that have engaged the political process in an effort to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, eliminate toxic waste dumps, curb losses in biological diversity, prevent the destruction of wetlands and water sheds, and promote the consumption of locally grown organic foodstuffs.
It is not difficult to understand why the scientists who wrote the “Open Letter to the Religious Community” concluded that religious environmentalism will be critically important in the effort to resolve the environmental crisis. As Bill McKibben puts it, “Only our religious institutions, among the mainstream organizations of Western, Asian and indigenous societies, can say with real conviction, with any chance of an audience, that there is some point to life beyond accumulation.” Or as Roger Gottlieb points out, only religious consciousness can “take us beyond the conventional ego, beyond a frame of mind in which we calculate our interests, struggle for success, seek to control the world to get what we want from it, or unendingly complain about every damn thing that we don’t have.” It is, says Gottlieb, only the experience of “God or Ultimate Reality or Spirit” that makes us feel “less depressed, bored, anxious and selfish and more grateful, joyous and serene” and gives us a sense of “reverence and awe” that we exist in a universe that is “an enthralling mystery.”
The religious environmentalism movement has made some progress in dealing with environmental problems on the local or regional level. But it has not made any substantive contributions to the resolution of environmental problems on the global level because it lacks the infrastructure required to make those contributions. Another related problem is that the five great religious traditions of world do not have the same the views of nature or understanding of how environmental problems can or should be resolved.
This article intends to make the case that religious environmentalism could become a worldwide movement capable of making substantive contributions to the resolution of the environmental crisis if sufficient numbers of people in the five great religious traditions entered the new dialogue between the truths of science and religion. But the price that must be paid to enter this dialogue is a willingness to recognize, as Thomas Berry put it, that “existing religious traditions are too distant from our new sense of the universe to be adequate to the task before us. We cannot do without the traditional religions, but they cannot do what needs to be done.” If we are to do what needs to be done, this will require, said Berry, a “new type of religious orientation” that is commensurate with and emerges from “our new story of the universe.”
The New Story in Physics
In the new story of the universe, the cosmos is a seamlessly interconnected whole that evolved toward higher levels of complexity. Perhaps the best way to briefly explain why this is the case is to imagine that you are one of two observers in a scientific experiment in which two photons originate from a single source and travel equal distances in opposite directions halfway across the known universe to points where each will be measured or observed. Before the photons are released, each of two observers is magically transported to one of the points of observation. And the task of the observers is to measure and record a certain property of each photon that has traveled over this enormous distance to the point of observation.
In spite of the fact that the photons are traveling at the speed of light, each observer would have to wait patiently for billions of years for one of the photons to arrive at his or her observation point. But suppose that the observers are willing to endure this wait because they hope to test the predictions of a mathematical theorem. This theorem not only allows for the prospect that a correlation might exist between the observed properties of the two photons. It also indicates that this correlation could occur instantly, in spite of the fact that the distance between the observers and their measuring instruments is billions of light years.
Now imagine that after the observations are made, the observers are magically transported back to the point where the photons were released, and the observations of both are compared. Strangely enough, the results would indicate that the observed properties of the two photons did, in fact, correlate with one another over this vast distance instantly. This imaginary experiment distorts some of the more refined aspects of the actual experiments in which photons released from a single source are measured or correlated over what physicists term space-like separated regions. But if we assume that the imaginary experiment was conducted many times, the results would be the same as those in the actual experiments.
The intent in these experiments was to test some predictions made in a mathematical theorem published in 1964 by physicist John Bell. Like Einstein, Bell was discomforted by the threat quantum physics posed to the assumption in classical physics that there must be a one-to-one correspondence between every element of a physical theory and physical reality. Bell hoped that the results of the experiments testing his theorem would obviate this threat. But he also realized that these results would provide a basis for answering some very large questions about our scientific understanding of the character of physical reality and the role of physical theory in achieving this understanding.
Would the results reveal that quantum physics is a self-consistent theory whose predictions would hold in this new class of experiments? Or would they reveal that quantum theory is incomplete and that its apparent challenges to the classical understanding of the correspondence between physical theory and physical reality were illusory? The answer to this question reached in experiments testing the predictions made in Bell’s theorem would also determine which of two fundamentally different assumptions about the character of physical reality is correct. Is physical reality, as classical physics assumed, local? Or is physical reality, as quantum theory predicts, non-local? While the question may seem esoteric and the terms innocuous, the issues at stake and the implications involved were enormous.
Bell was convinced that the totality of all of our previous knowledge of physical reality, not to mention the laws of physics, would favor the assumption of locality. This assumption states that a measurement at one point in space cannot influence what occurs at another point if the distance between the points is large enough that no signal can travel between them at light speed in the time allowed for measurement. In the jargon of physics, the two points exist in space-like separated regions, and a measurement in one region cannot influence what occurs in the other if the assumption of locality is correct.
But quantum theory allows for what Einstein disparagingly termed “spooky actions at a distance.” When two particles originate under conditions where their wave aspects are entangled, quantum theory predicts that a measurement of a property of one particle will correlate with that of the other particle even if the distance between them is billions of light years. The theory also indicates that even though no signal can travel faster than light, the correlations will occur instantaneously, or in “no time.” If this prediction held in experiments testing Bell’s theorem, we would be forced to conclude that physical reality is non-local.
After Bell published his theorem in 1964, a series of increasingly refined tests of the predictions made in this theorem culminated in experiments by Alain Aspect and his team at the University of Paris-South. When the results of the Aspect experiments were published in 1982, the answers to Bell’s questions were quite clear—quantum physics is a self-consistent theory, and non-locality is a fact of nature. In 1997, these same answers were provided by the results of twin-photon experiments carried out by Nicolus Gisin and his team at the University of Geneva. While the distance between detectors in space-like, separated regions in the Aspect experiments was thirteen meters, the distance between detectors in the Gisin experiments was extended to eleven kilometers, or roughly seven miles. This distance is so vast compared with distances on the realm of quanta that if the strength of the correlations held at eleven kilometers, physicists were convinced it would also hold in an experiment where the distances between the detectors was halfway to the edge of the entire universe. But if the strength of the correlations significantly weakened or diminished, this would indicate that physical reality is local and that non-locality does not apply to the entire universe. This did not prove to be the case. The results of the Gisin experiments revealed that the correlations between detectors located in these space-like, separated regions did not weaken as the distance increased.
What is most important to realize here is that the new fact of nature revealed in these experiments, as physicist Bernard d’Espagnat was among the first to point out, is a “general” property of nature. All particles in the history of the cosmos have interacted with other particles in the way that particles interact in the Aspect and Gisen experiments. Virtually everything in our immediate physical environment is made up of quanta that have been interacting with other quanta in this manner from the Big Bang to the present. Also consider that quantum entanglement grows exponentially with the number of particles that interact under conditions where this can occur, and that there is no theoretical limit on the number of these entangled particles. This means that the universe on a very basic level is a vast web of particles that remain in contact with one another over any distance in no time. However strange or bizarre it might seem, we now know that physical reality is a seamlessly interconnected whole and that everything in this reality emerges from and is embedded in this whole.
The most profound religious truth in the great religious traditions of the world is that spiritual reality is a single significant whole, and human life and consciousness emerge from and are embedded in this whole. We now know that the most fundamental truth in the new story of physics is that physical reality is a single, significant whole. Everything that exists in the vast cosmos, including human life and consciousness, emerges from and is embedded in this whole. As Schrodinger put it, “Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is, in a certain sense, the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance.” Schrodinger also believed that the new story of the universe provides a basis for a dialogue between the truths of science and religion, and that this could eliminate what he viewed as a terrible deficiency in the scientific world view: “The scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives me a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really dear to our heart, that really matters to us.”
Another profound truth in the great religions of the world is that the single, significant whole in spiritual reality cannot be reduced to or fully understood using ordinary language. Amazingly enough, the results of the experiments testing Bell’s theorem also revealed that wave-particle dualism and quantum indeterminacy are indelible features of the life of the cosmos, and that there can be no one-to-one correspondence between every element of a physical theory and physical reality. This means that the single, significant whole in physical realty cannot be reduced to or fully understood using mathematical language.
This should have been obvious when Kurt Gödel published his Incompleteness Theorem in 1930. This extremely important but often ignored theorem shows that mathematics, the language of physical theory, cannot reach closure because no algorithm, or calculation procedure, that uses mathematical proofs can prove its own validity. In other words, any mathematical description of physical reality that claims to exhaustively describe any aspect of this reality cannot prove itself. As physicist Freeman Dyson puts it, “Gödel proved that in mathematics the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.”
According to mathematician Rudy Rucker, “Mathematics is open-ended. There can never be a final best system of mathematics. Every axiom-system for mathematics will eventually run into certain simple problems that it cannot solve at all.” If a mathematical system cannot prove itself, it follows that none of the mathematical systems in physical theories can fully disclose or describe the actual dynamics of physical reality. Even if we did manage to construct a “Theory of Everything,” this theory could not in principle be the final or complete description.
The New Story in Biology
In the new story about the universe in the biological sciences, life on the blue planet is also a seamlessly interconnected whole that evolved toward higher levels of complexity through the process of emergence. The term “emergence” applies to situations where new wholes spontaneously appear that have properties or display behavior that cannot be reduced to or understood in terms of their constituent parts. As Ernst Mayr put it, living systems “almost always have the peculiarity that the characteristics of the whole cannot (not even in theory) be deduced from the most complete knowledge of components, taken separately or in other partial combinations. This appearance of new characteristics in wholes has been designated emergence.”
Research in the biological sciences has revealed that the evolution of more complex organisms and processes occurs when an assemblage of parts in successive levels of organization results in new wholes that display novel properties or behavior. “Each higher level subject,” note biologists P.B. and J.S. Medawar, “contains ideas and conceptions peculiar to itself. These are the ‘emergent’ properties.” From this perspective, organisms are not mixtures or compounds of inorganic parts, but new wholes with emergent properties that are embedded in and intimately related to other organisms with their own emergent properties.
We now know that the process of emergence has resulted in increasingly more complex life forms during the entire history of life on Earth. This history began with one self-replicating molecule, the ancestor of DNA; all organisms that have since existed on this planet directly descended from this single life form. During the first two billion years, prokaryotes, or organisms composed of cells with no nucleus, were the only living inhabitants of planet Earth. But over the course of these two billion years, interactions between these simple organisms resulted in the complex processes of fermentation, photosynthesis, and oxygen-breathing.
The reason why interactions between these simple organisms could result in such complex processes is that the absence of a nucleus with a surrounding membrane in the prokaryotes allowed bits of genetic material to be routinely and rapidly transferred between them. Consequently, an individual prokaryote or bacterium had the use of accessory genes, often from very different strains, which could perform functions not performed by its own DNA. What this picture suggests, according to Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan, is that “all the world’s bacteria have access to a single gene pool and hence to the adaptive mechanisms of the entire bacterial kingdom.”
Because an individual bacterium could access genes in large numbers of other bacteria, the speed of recombination was much greater than that allowed by mutation in organisms with a nucleus. And this explains why the system of life could adapt to a change in the global environment in a few years. As Margulis and Sagan put it, “By constantly and rapidly adapting to environmental conditions, the organisms of the microcosm support the entire biota, their global exchange network ultimately affecting every living plant and animal.”
The discovery of symbiotic alliances between organisms that became permanent is another amazing aspect of our new understanding of the evolution of life on Earth. In the cells of higher organisms, there are several organelles that have double membranes. These organelles were originally separate organisms that evolved symbiotic relationships with other organisms. For example, the mitochondria found in the cytoplasm of modern animal cells allow these cells to utilize oxygen and to exist in an oxygen-rich environment. But the mitochondria that serve this function have their own genes composed of DNA, reproduce by simple division, and do so at times different from the rest of the cell.
The explanation for this extraordinary alliance between mitochondria and the rest of the cell is that oxygen-requiring prokaryotes in primeval seas combined with other prokaryotes. These ancestors of modern mitochondria provided waste disposal and oxygen-derived energy in exchange for food and shelter, and the previously separate organisms evolved together into more complex forms of oxygen-requiring life. Similarly, the ancestors of the chloroplasts inside the cells of all green plants were originally separate organisms that evolved the capacity to convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and sugar through the process of photosynthesis. Like the ancestors of the mitochondria, these prokaryotes combined with other prokaryotes in a symbiotic relationship, and a new life form emerged as a result.
A great deal of evidence also suggests that self-regulating and self-perpetuating dynamics in the whole (system of life) emerged from the interactions of all of the parts (organisms). For example, the fossil record indicates that the temperature of Earth’s surface and the composition of its air have been continuously regulated by the interactions between organisms. Although the complex network of feedback loops that maintains conditions suitable for life is not well understood, there are good reasons to believe that the entire biota was responsible.
Also consider that the concentrations of atmospheric oxygen stabilized at about 21 percent millions of years ago and have stayed at this level ever since. If the concentration of oxygen had fallen a few percent below this level, oxygen-breathing organisms would have died from asphyxiation. Likewise, if the concentration of this volatile gas had risen a few percent above 21 percent, living organisms would have spontaneously combusted. The only reasonable explanation of why this did not happen is that feedback loops emerged in the interactions between organisms that regulated the concentrations of oxygen and other atmospheric gases. In the absence of these feedback loops, the quantities of these gases would be so minute as to be undetectable.
Another clear indication that interactions between organisms have sustained conditions suitable for life has to do with the fact that the total luminosity of the sun, or the total quantity of energy released as sunlight per year, has decreased during the last 4 billion years by as much as 50 percent. If this was the case, it seems reasonable to conclude that the energy generated by the less luminous sun would have been greatly reduced and that temperatures on Earth during this period should have been at freezing levels. But the fossil record indicates that the temperature of Earth during this period has remained fairly stable at about twenty-two degrees Centigrade. The hypothesis here is that a vast network of feedback loops in the carbon cycle between volcanic eruptions, rock weathering, soil bacteria, oceanic algae, and the production of limestone sediments maintained Earth’s temperature by regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Equally remarkable, research in the biological sciences has also revealed that the system of life is self-organizing and self-perpetuating on the molecular, cellular, and embryological levels. This research has demonstrated that feedback loops between proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, cells, tissues, organs, and organisms modified the structures and functions of ecosystems in response to changing conditions in the environment. And we also know that there is a macro-level indeterminacy in the non-linear system of life, so future conditions in this system can only be predicted in terms of a range of probabilities.
In the new story of science about human evolution, all of the 7 billion people living on this planet today are the direct descendents of about two thousand individuals in the small tribe of hominids who evolved the capacity to acquire and use fully complex language systems about 64,000 years ago. The members of the original family of fully modern humans spoke the same language, lived in the same culture, and closely resembled one another in physical terms. After groups of their descendents migrated out of Africa in small hunter-gatherer tribes, language systems and cultures became increasingly more diverse, and minor mutations that enhanced the prospect of survival in particular ecological niches resulted in variations in skin color, facial features, and body types. But the story of science has revealed that we are all members of one extended human family and closely resemble each other in genetic, cognitive, and behavioral terms.
One of the pre-adaptations that contributed to the evolution of the brain regions and neuronal pathways that allowed our ancestors to acquire and use fully complex language systems is the mirror neuron system. Mirror neurons are concentrated in the pre-motor cortex, the posterior parietal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus, and the insual. They fire both when we perform a particular action and when we watch this action performed by others. In addition to simulating the action or behavior of others in the brain of the observer, the mirror neuron system also allows the observer to feel the emotions and grasp the intent associated with the action or behavior. Equally significant, this system operates with little or no feedback from higher-level cognitive processes and conscious reflective behavior. As the neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti puts it, “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.” Given that the mirror neuron system provides a basis for imitation learning and simulating the behavior of others on a pre-verbal or non-verbal level, it probably played a critically important role in the evolution of a gesture-performance communication system.
We have known for some time, as psychologist Seymour Epstein puts it, that “people apprehend reality in two fundamentally different ways, one variously labeled intuitive, automatic, natural, non-verbal, narrative, experiential, and the other analytical, deliberative, verbal, and rational.” But what we did not know until quite recently is that the brain regions and neuronal processes associated with the first of these fundamental ways in which we apprehend reality evolved prior to those associated with the use of fully complex language systems. Recent research in neuroscience and the behavioral sciences has shown that the neuronal processes in this much older, non-verbal system encode reality in images and metaphors and make connections through the process of association. It also shows that feedback from this system results in spontaneous moral behavior motivated by empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Further, this research reveals that the more recently evolved neuronal processes in the verbal system encode reality in abstract symbols, make connections by logical analysis, mediate behavior by conscious appraisal of events, and result in deliberative behavior that tends not to be motivated by empathy, sympathy, and compassion.
The non-verbal system associated with spontaneous moral behavior probably enhanced the prospects of survival in small hunter-gatherer tribes often threatened by present, visible, and immediate dangers. And the legacy of this evolutionary past is apparent in the results of research in the behavioral sciences on the spontaneous moral behavior of surviving members of the extended human family. This research has shown that people are far more willing to provide aid that could relieve the suffering of identified individuals—those with known names and faces—than for unidentified individuals, alone or in groups.
This research thus provides a basis for answering a question that that has perplexed moral philosophers and theologians for a long time: Why are good people who are quite willing to make personal sacrifices to preserve and protect the lives of identified individuals unwilling to make these sacrifices to preserve and protect the lives of large numbers of unidentified people? One of the possible explanations is that the spontaneous moral behavior that results in a willingness to make personal sacrifices for identified individuals is associated with neuronal processes in the non-verbal system, which operates on the unconscious level. The other is that the process of making decisions about whether to make personal sacrifices for large numbers of unidentified individuals is associated with neuronal processes in the verbal system, which operates on the conscious level.
The stark differences between spontaneous moral behavior associated with the unconscious non-verbal system and making decisions that could have moral consequences associated with the conscious verbal system are apparent in the following comment by Mother Teresa: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Another comment made by the novelist Annie Dillard nicely illustrates the difficulties involved in reconciling these differences: “There are 1,198,500,000 people alive in China. To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself—in all your singularity, importance, complexity and love—and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it.”
A great deal of research in the social and behavioral sciences also suggests that the human capacity to engage in spontaneous moral behavior is an innate product of evolution, and that moral concepts and emotions associated with this behavior are universal. For example, the anthropologist Donald Brown has compiled an impressively long list of these universal moral concepts and emotions. This list includes distinctions between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; rights and obligations; prohibitions against murder, rape, and other forms of violence; shame; taboos; and sanctions for wrongs against the community. Studies done by anthropologists have also shown that people living in existing hunter-gatherer tribes display a strong belief in fairness and reciprocity, a great capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a pronounced willingness to work cooperatively for the good of the whole community. Finally, the results of numerous studies done on both children and adults living in highly industrialized Western countries clearly indicate that a violation of the expectation that others will display a sense of fairness evokes feedbacks from the limbic system associated with outrage and indignation.
The New Story and the Most Profound Truths of Religion
The new story of science has also provided a basis for answering a question that has puzzled students of comparative religion for a long time: Why are descriptions of spiritual reality in the sacred texts of the great religious traditions remarkably similar in spite of differences in ontology, or in conceptions of the nature of God or the Ground of Being? In one of the sacred texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, “Of all that is material and all that is spiritual in this world, know for certain I am both its origins and its dissolution” (Gita 10.8). In the principal text of Taoism, the Toa te Ching, the Toa is described as the “Oneness” that cannot be named: “The Above of this Oneness is not bright, and the Below of this Oneness is not dark. As a continuum it cannot be named, and it again vanishes into no-thing-ness. It is therefore the form of no form, the image of no object” (Toa Te Ching, 25). In Buddhism, as Ch’an Master Huang Po puts it, “All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, besides which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. . . . It does not belong to the categories of things which exist and do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old.”
In the Book of Revelation, God says, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last” (Revelation 1:8). In the Psalms, “the heavens tell of the glory of God and the firmament bespeak his handwork” (Psalms 19:1,4) and the “sea and everything in it” sings praises to God (Psalms 96:11). In the New Testament, Christ says, “That they may be one; as thou Father are in me, and I in thee, that they may also be one in us: that the world may believe that thou has sent me. And the Glory which thou has given me I have given to them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17: 21-23). And it is written in the sacred text of Islam, the Qur’an, that, “Whithersoever you turn, there is the face of God” (2:115).
Students of comparative religion have also been puzzled by the fact that descriptions of the most profound religious experience in all of these traditions are remarkably similar. This experience is described as a wordless sense of communion with a single significant whole in which the self ceases to exist and there is no sense of the passage of time or extension in space. Those who have had this experience claim they were one with a spiritual reality that is both infinite and undifferentiated and that cannot be described in cognitive terms. They also claim that they perceive this reality during this state of pure spiritual awareness as non-local and unlimited, and that their experience of this state is not subjective in any sense.
What the new story of science has to say about this experience involves the results of recent experiments using computer-based brain-imaging systems. In one of these experiments, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania asked Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns to meditate or pray inside a single photon emission tomography (SPEC) brain-imaging system and to signal when they were in a state of profound spiritual awareness by tugging on string. When the monks and nuns indicated that they were in this state, the brain scans showed a dramatic decrease in neuronal activity in the left or dominant hemisphere that contains the major language centers and generates linguistically based narratives about a self separate from world. The scans also showed a large decrease in neuronal activity in the posterior parietal lobes associated with the differentiation and orientation of the body in three-dimensional space and the sense that events are progressing in time. Since the brain scans of the Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns were virtually identical, the results of these experiments strongly suggest that they were in very similar states of profound spiritual awareness.
But when the subjects in these experiments were asked to describe this experience, the monks said they were one with the seamlessly interconnected Ground of Being, while the nuns said they were in the presence of a transcendent and immutable God. The most reasonable explanation for the seeming disparity between the experience of profound spiritual awareness and the descriptions of this experience is that the neurological processes involved are quite different. When the monks and nuns sensed that they were one with a single significant whole in spiritual reality, the cognitive processes associated with linguistically based constructions of reality and the experience of self as separate from world were deactivated. But when they were asked to describe this experience, these processes were reactivated. Thus, their descriptions were based on narratives about the character of spiritual reality and the relationship of self to this reality in their respective religious traditions.
If we can assume, as the results of these experiments suggest, that the most profound states of spiritual awareness are very similar regardless of the cultural contexts in which they occur, it seems reasonable to conclude that this experience, as William James put it, is the “mother sea and fountain head” of all of the great religious traditions of the world. This explains, in my view, why the descriptions of the most profound state of spiritual awareness in the great religious traditions of the world are remarkably similar. And it could also explain why the most profound moral truth in these traditions is that the other is oneself and must be treated as one would wish to be treated.
Hinduism: “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma.” Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Judaism: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” Christianity: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” Islam: “None of you believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
The New Environmental Ethos
If the new dialogue between the truths of science and religion is as open and honest as it can and should be, it could serve as the basis for articulating and disseminating an environmental ethos with a profound spiritual dimension. In this ethos, all aspects of physical and spiritual reality, including human life and consciousness, emerge from and are embedded in a single significant whole. Those who embrace this ethos will realize that it is possible, as E.O. Wilson put it, “to love life enough to save it,” and they will view love, in the words of Eric Fromm, as an art that requires “discipline, concentration and patience.” And those who practice this art will recognize that it is necessary, as Wendell Berry said, to “daily shed the blood and break the body of creation” to sustain human life. But they will do so “knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently” and not “ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, and destructively.”
The practitioners of this art will have a deep and abiding sense of the sacred in their relationship to the natural world. They will be very much aware in their experience of this world that they are dealing with, as John Burroughs puts it, “primal sanities, primal honesties, primal attractions” and “touching at least the hem of the garment with which the infinite is clothed.” And they will view toxic waste dumps, polluted rivers and streams, dead zones in oceans and estuaries, decimated rain forests, and all the other wounds that we have inflicted on this world as utterly immoral and quite profane.
Those who embrace the new environmental ethos will also be familiar with what the new story of science has revealed about the role of emotions and about pre-conscious and unconscious processes in human thought and behavior. This story, as David Brooks puts it in his recently published book The Social Animal, obliges us to recognize the “relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social conventions over individual choice, character over IQ,” and “emergent organic systems over linear mechanistic ones.” We now know that the cognitive processes associated with empathy, sympathy, and compassion operate largely outside of those associated with linguistically based narratives about self and world. And we also know that the primary determinant of our willingness to engage in moral behavior is these feelings, and not the moral codes embedded in these narratives.
In the view of the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, this could explain why research in the social sciences has shown that there is little or no “correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior,” and why most studies have not found any correlations. It could also explain, as Rachel Carson put it, why “it is not half so important to know as to feel,” and why a sense of wonder in our relationship to the natural world must be experienced rather than taught. It is this experience, as Aldo Leopold famously said, that makes us realize that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Advice to the Prophets
If we are to resolve the environmental crisis, those who embrace the new environmental ethos must be willing to become the prophets who will soon arrive on the streets of our cities prepared and willing to wage a war aptly described by William James: “What we need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be compatible with their spiritual selves as war proved itself to be incompatible.” The prophets in the volunteer army that wages this moral equivalent of war will be citizens of the world who refuse to recognize the authority or the validity of cultural narratives about nationalism and national identity. And the “something heroic” that will be “compatible” with their spiritual selves will be to extend the circle of human compassion to all of humanity and to preserve and protect the environmental resources that sustain human life.
The strategies used in fighting the battles in this war will be based on the philosophy of non-violence as it was articulated and applied by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The weapons used will be protests, rallies, town meetings, boycotts, and political campaigns promoted and organized with videos, documentaries, films, and Web-based communication networks. The prophets who fight will be armed with the truths spoken by the scientific prophets, and they will translate these truths into language that people on the streets of our cities can readily understand. But this language, in contrast with that spoken by the scientific prophets, will be infused with spiritual and moral truths that are universally recognized as such in the great religious traditions of the world.
These prophets will realize, as David Orr puts it, that there “are legitimate grounds for hope in hard times, but not one speck of ground for wishful thinking. We won’t be rescued by more research, hyper-technology, or some deus ex machina. There is no anonymous ‘they’ who will figure things out.” They will also understand what Vaclav Havel meant when he said, “Hope is definitely not the same as optimism. It is not the conviction that things will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” And the hope that will be embraced by the prophets will be nurtured by doing good work, rising above the lesser self, and doing the right thing in a spirit of gratitude for and celebration of the gift of life.
These prophets will also realize that they now have a once-in-all-human-lifetimes opportunity. The opportunity is to realize the dream of this place with us and create in the process a more just, humane, and peaceful world in which extreme poverty does not exist and universal rights and freedoms are extended to all of humanity. This is not merely the work of an age, but a work that can preserve the memory of all ages. It is hard to imagine that anyone can serve a greater good or answer to a higher calling.