When Does “Life” Begin? (Part 3)

In this third installment of what now looks to be shaping up as five-part series, I hope to bring a Wisdom perspective to that profound liminal sphere encompassing conception, birth, and the formation of the soul. For it’s in the metaphysical confusion surrounding these mysteries, I believe, that the roots of our present abortion conundrum really have their origin.

Note that I say “a Wisdom perspective” rather that “the Wisdom perspective,” for the Wisdom tradition is by no means monochrome. My comments here reflect the strands of the lineage that have most directly informed my own understanding, specifically, the Gurdjieff Work and the Christian mystical/esoteric lineage running through the Gospel of Thomas, the Philokalia, Jacob Boehme, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. They also reflect some of the thinking at the forefront of contemporary embryology, particularly as represented in the work of Dutch embryologist Jaap van der Wal.


Life beginsThe Wisdom tradition would affirm vigorously that life does not merely begin at conception; it is already well underway by the time of conception—“life” here understood not as a purely biological phenomenon, but as flow, dynamism, and intelligent purposiveness. In contrast to earlier, more mechanical models, which tended to see conception in Darwinian terms (“the fittest sperm takes the egg”), contemporary embryological research suggests a much more collaborative model, far more akin to Nash-ian Game Theory than to Darwinian survival of the fittest. A myriad of sperm collaborate to place a single sperm before the egg, which then opens— volitionally—rather than simply being battered or overwhelmed.

nasa starsThere is evidence as well that conception occurs according to a full-fledged Law of Three model. It’s not simply sperm/egg//baby, but rather, sperm/egg/X//baby, where X represents the infusion of some mysterious animating force beyond the immediate biochemistry.

Those of us who participated in the 2012 Tucson Wisdom School will no doubt never forget that powerful moment when Wisdom student Nancy Denman, a research embryologist from British Columbia, described how the process of conception actually occurs. “The egg opens to a single sperm,” she explained, “then closes. For about twenty-four hours there is stillness. Then all of a sudden, the egg starts vibrating violently. ‘Ignition!!!’ we all call it.” Then she added parenthetically, “Those of us of a more religious bent might be inclined to describe it as “the descent of the Spirit.” >


So far so good. There is nothing in the above that should raise any eyebrows whatsoever among even the most ardent pro-lifers. “What part of LIFE do you not understand?” If anything, we are pushing back the leading edge of life into even earlier in the process, into the intrinsic purposiveness that Teilhard de Chardin and others would see as part of the irreversible intelligence of evolution itself.

But hang onto your hats; this next step is where we are about to part company rather dramatically with traditional pro-life metaphysics. For the Wisdom tradition would suggest that life—which indubitably is present at the moment of conception if not well before—is not synonymous with Soul. The terms are often used interchangeably, and it is precisely here, in this confusion, that the Gordian knot is originally tied.

In traditional Catholic metaphysics, this “x-factor” would immediately be identified as “the soul,” the essence of the living human being. The soul is created by God and bestowed at conception. Once bestowed, it is henceforward immortal within the cosmos; death will change its state but will not destroy it. Thus, the soul trajectory is established from the very beginning; from this the moment of conception forward, this uniquely particular and fully formed human identity will make its way through the journey of life, along the way accumulating virtue or vice—in acknowledgement of which, it will be assigned its permanent dwelling place in either heaven or hell.

UpwardIn the light of this venerable but antiquated metaphysical roadmap (note how it’s steeped in “substance theology,” long since invalidated by contemporary scientific models), it is easy to understand both the urgency and the pathos dominating the “pro-life” strategy. Denying the gift of life to even a two-cell fetus is tantamount to killing a defenseless human soul. The assumption governing much of the prolife rhetoric seems to be that somehow pro-choice folks don’t “get” that a human life is a human soul and need to be shown that it is, often in emotionally exaggerated and manipulative ways. Hence those “abortion stops a beating heart” billboards.

The Wisdom tradition—at least the lineage of the tradition I have been formed in—would see it differently. What is bestowed in that moment of “ignition” is not yet a soul, but rather, the potential to develop a soul. Soul does not come at the beginning; it comes at the end, forged and fused in the crucible of life itself (or perhaps better, in the womb of life) through the conscious weaving of that hand which is dealt at the moment of conception.

The notion of a “developmental soul” comes as a shock and perhaps even an affront to traditional Christian metaphysics. But hear me out here; it has been a staple in the Western esoteric tradition from the get-go, as I will document in my next blog. But even more compellingly, it holds the potential, I believe, to bring an authentic resolution to the abortion impasse, and to tie together that great desideratum so far escaping us: that integral “pro-life” stance that sees ALL stages of life as equally compelling and worthy of sacred protection.

Stay tuned for the next installment—to follow promptly.

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11 thoughts on “When Does “Life” Begin? (Part 3)

  1. As usual, my friend, you are taking us into deeper and deeper waters that will sustain us. I am in awe and appreciation for your wisdom that keeps following the golden thread.

    With great affection,

  2. All I can say is a humble ‘thank you’ for so clearly, concisely and graciously taking the time to share the fruit of your work with us. You have placed words on my long held intuition that there has to be something MORE to this impasse. It is utterly essential and will more deeply inform my practice as a healthcare professional and student of Wisdom.

  3. Hi Don

    I hope a lot of your confusion will clear up when we get to the next installment. Note here that I’m merely summarizing traditional Catholic teaching here, not setting it forth as my own personal belief. When I refer to this idea as “steeped in substance theology,” I believe I’m acknowledging the same point you’re making when you say “What if being is non-spatial and non-temporal?” Traditional Western metaphysical categories have tended to think in terms of being having “substance”–i.e., a self-defining suchness or even “thing-ness” that confers its identity. This is precisely the starting assumption so up for grabs in the contemporary dialogue with science and with other metaphysical models.

    But I should warn you, that I’m not into Eastern advaitic models, a la Ramana Maharshi or Sri Aurobindo. At least they do not principally inform my own thinking. They seem in their own way metaphysically monological, assuming the existence of categories of Being that would be as up for grabs in the present dialogue with the postmodern world as any other set of philosophically derived stipulations. I think if you keep trying to take my comments back to known advaitic reference points, you’re forcing the fit and will continue to experience confusion/frustration. Rather, see if you can stay with the unfolding on its own terms and see where it leads when I fill in more of the picture next week.

    By the way, my definition of life which you found so problematic (again, by starting with philosophical categories positing an infinite being or fullness) is informed substantially by Adrian Bejan in his book DESIGN IN NATURE. A Duke University professor of Engineering and avowed agnostic, Bejan has pioneered what he calls “The Constructal Law” studying how flow works in all finite systems, whether organic, inorganic, or informational. Thus, he can conclude, “To be alive is to keep on flowing and morphing.” (p. 6). This “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” benchmark for the presence of life allows us even more strongly to extricate life from merely a biological phenomenon and relocate it with the basic dynamism/intelligence/purposiveness of all created forms. This is indeed a bottom-up model, not dependent on the stipulation that there is first a conscious “ground of being” or “platonic ideal” which becomes the causal ground for all finite activity. Two different ways of looking at things, for sure.

    I don’t necessarily deny the existence of ideal forms and a conscious ground of eternal, infinite fullness. But like Occam’s Razor, I’d prefer to start with the simplest, most immediately verifiable explanations for the beingness we witness around us and participate in breath by breath—rather than starting with a stipulated metaphysical reality and forcing all the pieces to accommodate around it. Too much Christian Science in my childhood to wanna go there again!

    1. Wow, thanks for an amazing, detailed response. Much appreciated.

      My confusion was seeing what appeared to me to be classical theism mixed with what I had assumed was your nondual Christianity. You acknowledgement of starting out with traditional teaching cleared up the confusion.

      I realize this is getting rather far afield from your topic, so I’ll just address two other points briefly:

      As for Bejan being agnostic, I’m afraid I’ve rarely met an agnostic that isn’t a physicalist in drag. I often find it worth pondering Owen Barfield’s pregnant phrase: “the residue of unresolved positivism”

      Finally, assuming you aren’t taking your view of Sri Aurobindo from Ken Wilber (who, though presenting himself as an expert, has admitted he hasn’t actually read any of Sri Aurobindo’s writings), it would be impossible for me to put in my own words the infinite worlds between Maharshi’s Advaita and Sri Aurobindo’s evolutionary vision, so I”ll leave you with this, from Book III, Canto 2, of Savitri (for more on the mysterious Black Fire that burns at the heart of every atom, every subatomic particle, I recommend Krishna Prem’s commentary on that great postmodern treatise, The Katha Upanishad (circa 800 BC); available for free on the net):

      The Power, the Light, the Bliss no word can speak
      Imaged itself in a surprising beam
      And built a golden passage to his heart
      Touching through him all longing sentient things.
      A moment’s sweetness of the All-Beautiful
      Cancelled the vanity of the cosmic whirl.
      A Nature throbbing with a Heart divine
      Was felt in the unconscious universe;
      It made the breath a happy mystery.
      A love that bore the cross of pain with joy
      Eudaemonised the sorrow of the world,
      Made happy the weight of long unending Time,
      The secret caught of God’s felicity.

      A Heart was felt in the spaces wide and bare,
      A burning Love from white spiritual founts
      Annulled the sorrow of the ignorant depths;
      Suffering was lost in her immortal smile.
      A Life from beyond grew conqueror here of death;
      To err no more was natural to mind;
      Wrong could not come where all was light and love.
      The Formless and the Formed were joined in her:
      Immensity was exceeded by a look,
      A Face revealed the crowded Infinite.

      Hers is the mystery the Night conceals;
      The spirit’s alchemist energy is hers;
      She is the golden bridge, the wonderful fire.
      The luminous heart of the Unknown is she,
      A power of silence in the depths of God;
      She is the Force, the inevitable Word,
      The magnet of our difficult ascent,
      The Sun from which we kindle all our suns,
      The Light that leans from the unrealised Vasts,
      The joy that beckons from the impossible,
      The Might of all that never yet came down.
      All Nature dumbly calls to her alone
      To heal with her feet the aching throb of life
      And break the seals on the dim soul of man
      And kindle her fire in the closed heart of things.
      All here shall be one day her sweetness’ home,
      All contraries prepare her harmony;
      Towards her our knowledge climbs, our passion gropes;
      In her miraculous rapture we shall dwell,
      Her clasp shall turn to ecstasy our pain.

    1. Good to point this out. Both installments can be found on this site. The first one posted on July 17th is entitled “A Surprising Ecumenism…” and the second one is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal” which was posted on July 25th.

      1. Cynthia,

        I have a specific question. I realize it may sound like a purely speculative question, but I think it has powerful practical implications (it also may sound “challenging,” but I am genuinely confused!).

        You say the soul is “created” at or near conception.

        Can you explain how this relates to a non dual view? The practical implications, to me, stem from the apparent absence of an eternal (non temporal, not endless in time) aspect of the Being (or soul).

        It seems that the question of abortion (and every other moral question) changes 100% if our “essence of Being” is non-temporal and non-spatial. The very foundation of the question of evil changes too.

        Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what it means for a soul to be created?

        The following passage may convey more clearly my confusion about this issue:


        “In the following passage, the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi attempts to convey he distinction between the deeper consciousness – that of the Infinite Knower – and the separative egos consciousness. He does so in response to someone simply having said, “I have come here from far away”

        ‘That is not the truth. Where is a ‘coming’ or ‘going or any movement whatever, for the one, all-pervading Spirit [the Infinite Knower] which you really are? You are where you have always been. it is your body that moved or was conveyed from pace to place till it reached [here]. The is the simple truth, but to a person who considers himself a [separately existing] subject living in an objective world, it appears as something altogether visionary.’

        (From pg. 263: “Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness”)

  4. Fascinating thoughts, though I perhaps am misunderstanding some terms, as I tend to find the Indian understanding of “life” and soul more comprehensive and integral than most of what I’ve found in the Western tradition – but, since I could very well be misunderstanding what you say, let me investigate a bit

    Starting at the end, the description you make of the “developmental soul” has been part of the Mahayana tradition for over 2000 years. Alan Wallace speaks of it as the “substrate” consciousness – which is associated with the animal evolution, then with humans, and will be associated with whatever species emerges that transcends humans. Robert Thurman, who has studied Sri Aurobindo’s terminology as well as being a life-long student of Tibetan Buddhism, agrees that this term is similar – though not exactly the same – as Sri Aurobindo’s ‘psychic being.”

    Sri Aurobindo makes a distinction between the “psychic entity” – or Divine Soul – and the psychic being, which seems to relate to what you call the developmental soul.

    Of course, this wouldn’t be “bestowed at conception” – but as far as I know, rebirth was a commonly accepted understanding for several centuries among the early Desert Fathers (and, I imagine, Mothers), so, I don’t think this is necessarily a major difficulty (though it were widely accepted, it wouldn’t necessarily end the abortion debate – Thurman himself is strongly against abortion, though he is pro-choice – after all, if a lama has chosen a particular birth as a way to return, abortion doesn’t “kill” the Soul (as if the infinite, eternal Soul could be killed!), but it does deprive the evolving psychic being of a specifically chosen manifestation).

    So far so good.

    The problem I have is with the definition of life, as “flow, dynamism, and intelligent purposiveness.” If there is nothing remotely like the 19th century notion of self-existent matter, then there is no such thing as a “purely biological phenomenon,” if “biology” is considered, as Richard Lewontin thinks of it, as purely material (Lewontin is the biologist who famously declared, [paraphrased]: “I don’t care if materialism is utterly irrational and incoherent, we must support it no matter what, because the alternative [religion] is so much worse”).

    From the Vedantic view, when Being manifests (which is an eternal reality, not really a “when”), the Cosmic “Word,” or Cosmic Harmony manifests a perfect reflection of an infinitesimal portion of that Infinite, Unthinkable Being, without in any way disconnecting from that Infinite Reality. In our current state of Avidya/Ignorance/Sin, from that Cosmic Harmony, the limited mind provides shapes which appear to be independent or separate, the life-energy (which is not at all the pseudo-materialistic vital force of the 19th century biologists) is an intermediate reality between the separating mind and the “result” of the projection of the Cosmic Word, the sensory appearances which we have deluded ourselves into believing to be independent physical “stuff” of some kind.

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