Humanity and Divinity as Radically Embodied

UNCP Author/Contributor (non-UNCP co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Dr. David H. Nikkel, Professor of Religion & Department Chair (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP )
Web Site:

Abstract: Pursuant to the Philosophical and Theological Foundations of the Science and Religion Dialogue, this essay will develop an anthropological theory I call "radical embodiment," a biologically informed theory of human nature, rationality, and meaning. This theory also has ramifications for the divine-world relationship. I will draw upon a mentor, religionist William Poteat, who in turn drew upon philosophers who emphasized the bodily nature of human existence, as well as utilizing contemporary thinkers. I will argue that all human reason, meaning, and consciousness arise, not merely instrumentally but substantively, from our sensorimotor capabilities and the general feeling or orientational states of our bodies. With phenomenologist Maurice Merleau Ponty, radical embodiment maintains that human perception and bodily engagement correlatively define and are defined by the world. Radical embodiment thus overcomes Cartesian dualisms between mind and the physical world incompatible with modern science. Cognitive scientists Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, with support from biologists Lewontin and Oyama, deftly extend the correlation of human sensorimotor capabilities and the environment to the evolutionary process itself: self-organizing and emergent biological systems and the environment mutually specify each other. The evolutionary changes enabling symbolic communication and culture allow humankind to step back from our immediate environment to entertain both religious and scientific questions. Human language has thus exponentially expanded the complexity of human reason and meaning. Nevertheless, consonant with our evolutionary heritage and the self-organizing capabilities of organisms, radical embodiment argues with Poteat, philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein, contemporary philosopher Mark Johnson, and linguist George Lakoff that the semantics of human language rely upon the images and meanings of our spatial orientation, movement, and perception. Even the syntax that permits the most abstract of mental gymnastics relies upon and extends from these bodily semantics. Neurobiologists Damasio and Edelman have expounded how body-minded consciousness entailing intrinsic values has been adaptive. The perspective of radical embodiment avoids non-biological models that have reinscribed mind-body dualisms, either through discarnate computational models or physicalist reductionist models where consciousness is an epiphenomenon or illusion rather than integral to bodily engagement with our natural and social worlds. Finally, epistemologist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi's concept of tacit knowledge is crucial to understand how we indwell the bodily meaning of our perceptions and movement, of our language, and of our subconscious and unconscious brain processes even as we attend to our world—and thus how it is all too easy to forget this inalienable indwelling in favor of discarnate models of human nature, whether functionalist or linguistic constructivist or physicalist in a manner that denies our lived and lively phenomenal bodies. Whether human meaning is here on purpose or ultimately by blind chance or brute fact goes beyond science per se to the realm of metaphysical intuition or religious faith. However, we can avoid those models of divinity incompatible with and instead opt for those that cohere or even resonate with scientific knowledge. Our emerging vision of human meaning as embodied resonates with a religious vision of the divine as also embodied: the bodily metaphors at the root of all our experience can be enlisted to interpret the natural world as the body of God.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2006
Humanity, Divinity, Radical Embodiment, Human Reason, Consciousness, Sensorimotor Capabilities, Divine-World Relationship

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