Whenever I spend time with Ursula Goodenough, one of Walt Whitman's more famous lines comes to mind: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes." And as Whitman was a great nature poet, in her own way, so is Goodenough. A professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Goodenough does not believe in God, and yet in 1989 she joined the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, served as its president for four years, and still serves on its council and shows up each summer to speak at its conference on Star Island. An impeccable scholar, her textbook, Genetics, is a classic in the field and in its third edition-and yet at the same time, she is the author of a poetic and accessible bestseller, "The Sacred Depths of Nature". Above all, she is one of the forces behind a growing movement that calls itself religious naturalism and suggests that whatever our religious beliefs, and even if we have none at all, we can all come together to celebrate nature, tell the epic of evolution with awe and joy, and protect the earth. A warm, brilliant and embracing woman, Ursula Goodenough's contradictions make up a harmonious whole--sort of like nature itself.
If you look at the evolutionary ladder, where do you think the sense of meaning begins? Do organisms other than humans have it?
All life has a kind of seamlessness. All creatures have to be aware of their environment, and there has been an evolution of the capacities needed for detecting increasingly complex stimuli. I have no problem calling this "meaning," since all creatures pick out meaningful facets of their environment. For the first creatures, these facets were physical and mediated by receptor proteins. Sperm and eggs find each other by protein shapes; photosynthetic bacteria find light by protein shapes. The impetus to figure out what's going on is still very much programmed into our highly complex brains.
How does meaning in humans differ qualitatively from the rest of life on Earth?
My sense is that in developed human minds, the notion of meaning has expanded beyond what's immediately out there. We're constantly trying to figure out what caused something. That's true of all sorts of brain-based organisms, but perhaps the difference in humans is that if we can't see an obvious cause, we postulate. If you're lying in bed and hear a noise outside, you might imagine it's a burglar or perhaps Prince Charming. The point is, we form hypotheses and draw up scenarios for what that stimulus might mean.
I think this whole need to understand cause expanded early in humans--we see it in cave paintings. If you are spending time with children, you see that they do this quite early: "What made me, Mommy and Daddy?" "What made Mommy and Daddy?". That recursive kind of seeking causal explanations for things is part of us.
Do you think world religions can be explained by wanting to know how the world works?
There are two possibilities. A great many people say we have language and imagination to posit creators, interveners, and agencies that we can't actually prove. And yet some people experience God within them--these experiences are not drawn-up hypotheses. It's possible those of us who don't feel God within them have deficient brains that aren't capable of such experiences; or alternatively, the people who experience these things have brains that somehow create them. As near as I can tell, the jury is out on that. I may be a non-theist who doesn't include a god concept in my religious orientation because I have an incompetent brain, or perhaps theists have brains giving them inaccurate information.
We now have the neurobiological evidence, from the studies of Andrew Newberg, M.D., that certain parts of the brain shut down and others light up during deep meditation. The fMRI work from Richie Davidson in Wisconsin on Tibetan monks also shows a shutting-down. This might explain how we access states of cosmic consciousness and unity. Whether this is a correlation or a cause, and what this means about the content of those experiences, we have no idea.
I've had interesting conversations with Andrew Newberg about this. There's no question that brains change when in these other states. A friend of mine talked about all of this as getting in touch with his froggy self-that when he's in a meditative mode, it's more like being a frog. It's not higher, but lower, but not in any pejorative way. It's shutting down parts of the cerebral cortex. As they say in the "How To Meditate" books, it's letting the thoughts go, and going somewhere else. That somewhere else could be higher or lower. It could be a more primitive brain state.
But, as Terry Deacon (a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley) and I have written, it's very unlikely that even if humans in altered states have fewer signals firing off in their cortex, the experience isn't very likely to be that of a frog's mind-state. The fact is that we humans can come back and talk about it, however inchoately. A frog can't.