Thinking About Religion
Volume 4 (2004)

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Beyond Determinism:
Hybrid Scholarship Revisits the Question of Human Freedom

John Collins
Department of Religion
Wake Forest University

This paper is a partial response to the emergence and development of several “new sciences” during the last decades of the 20th century. I call these the “sciences of chaos” [1], the “sciences of complexity” [2], the “sciences of creativity” [3], and the “sciences of consciousness” [4]. Although most “orthodox” scientists object to calling these studies “science”, the evidence demonstrates that this label is appropriate, because for the first time in so far as I know, the phenomena of physical chaos, chemical and biological complexity, and human consciousness and creativity have been subjected to scientific, i.e. a quantitative and mathematical analysis, with remarkable success.

The results of these studies have radically changed how “new science” understand the cosmos and humankind's place in it. Here I will describe only a small portion of this cognitive revolution -- a portion which deals with the concept of “freedom of the will”, and therefore, seems most relevant to us as we pursue this vocation of creating knowledge, or as new science says, “unfolding context-appropriate cognitions” in ourselves and assisting students to do the same.

A Healthy Heart is Generated by Hybrid Processing

According to what is here called “orthodox” science, the beating heart, and all other organic processes, are described as “mechanical”, i.e. strictly determined and fully predictable. Now, primarily as a result of the triumph of Quantum Theory, some scholars claim that a heart beat is generated by complex processing which is in part mechanical and in part non-mechanical. Obviously, understanding the causal nature of the “non-mechanical” aspects of a heart beat and other organic processes is relevant here. Most out of this discussion is taken from the PBS video series “The Sacred Balance” [5]. In these videos, David Suzuki, recounts his personal journey from reductive orthodoxy, which assumes mechanical determinacy for all natural processes, as a young scientist in the 60’s to a devotee of biological complexity, diversity and what he calls "sacred harmony". Here I refer to him as an "elder scientist". In this example, the elder scientist is given a lesson in cardiology by a younger scientist at Harvard [6]. The young scientist explains to his elder,

A healthy heart represents a remarkable balance of excessive order on the one hand and randomness on the other. Healthy systems like to be between order and disorder -- they are fidgety -- they like to be ready for everything.

He illustrates his point by describing the differences in what one hears when one listens to the sounds made by a beating heart and what one sees when one looks at a computer enhanced electromagnetic spectrum produced by an active heart. He points out that when one listens, one hears what appears to be a constant rhythm, which reminds one of the ticking of a mechanical clock. This monotonous cadence gives one the impression that the heart, regardless of the size or nature of the body in which it is operating, repeats the same mechanical pattern over and over again. This “mechanical heart”, like the perfectly ordered universe out of which, according to the assumptions of material reductionism, it is presumed to have arisen, appears to operate deterministically. Indeed, this "first approximation" of the nature of cardio-function, which describes the heart as a “mechanical pump”, has defined the scientific view of the heart ever since the publication of Harvey's Anatomical Exercises in the 17th century.

But, as the young scientist explains, this first impression is no longer accepted. Thinking of the heart as a mechanical device is both inaccurate and tragically misleading; for it represents a medical misunderstand which now dominates cardiology. A more accurate understanding arises when one examines the electromagnetic spectrum produced by the neurological activity of the heart with the aid of 20th-century technology. Computer enhanced analysis of the energy field generated by cardio-function reveals considerable complexity and flexibility. Not only is the energy spectrum of each heart observed to be different from the one generated by every other heart; but, when the spectral analysis is taken to the level of "fine-tuning", it is found that each heartbeat is unique-- in the same way and for the same reasons that every snowflake is different from every other snowflake, i.e. because of the operation of the fundamental characteristic of all complex processes called “sensitivity to initial conditions” [7]. Indeed, studies of the electromagnetic spectrum generated by the neurological activity of the heart demonstrate that:

The five small waves that make up each person's electrical heart signal register a constellation of unique energy patterns - each person's heartbeat is as personal and distinctive as a fingerprint.… If each heart embodies a unique energy pattern; and if the heart is the physiological domain of love, tranquility and feelings of connection to others - emotions normally associated with spirituality - has science finally pinpointed the physical repository of each individual's spiritual essence, an anatomical gateway to the human soul? [8].

In order to illustrate the health advantages of the “peaceful complexity” of an unstressed healthy heart- in this case the heart of the elder scientist— the young scientist plays a computer simulation which translates the energy spectrum of the heartbeat into a musical score. The computer displays the score, note by note, and then plays the music. The elder scientist, noting the obvious differences between the sounds generated by his relaxed healthy heart and those which represent the activity of a heart under stress, exclaims, "What a contrast! The healthy (unstressed) heart makes beautiful music, but the sick (stressed) heart is strictly ordered, monotonous, repetitious, and mechanical"[9]. There are measurable differences in the physiology of an unstressed heartbeat and a heartbeat dictated by stress-producing circumstances. Under stress the rhythm of the heart is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system which responds to physically, cognitively, sociologically, or spiritually problematic situations by infusing the bloodstream with adrenaline which speeds up the operation of the heart. The heart is no longer free to respond spontaneously to changing conditions but must submit to the perceived needs of the disturbed body which it serves. However, in response to this “adrenaline hegemony”, the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for generating the “music” of an unstressed heart, responds to this “external chemical tyranny” by

releasing biochemical tranquilizers enabling us to relax. The heart itself plays a major role in that relaxation response by making "attrial natriuretic factor" or ANF, its own unique hormone known as the "balance hormone." ANF balances or moderates the body's physical response to stress, easing physical symptoms of panic as tides of tension rise. The more ANF we make, the more peaceful we feel [10].

Finally, the young scientist points out that in terms of “evolutionary advantage” the heart has developed this attraction to complex processing because a wide range of variability, contingency, and openness to unique possibilities enables it to adapt more easily to a constantly changing environment. In contrast to a mechanical heart, which produces a constant rhythm and relatively simple energy spectrum, this “highly evolved”, dynamic heart produces all possible frequencies [11]. Of course--and this point is particularly relevant when discussing humans where most stress is cognitively induced and enhanced--, both heart and mind must be in a state of harmonic relaxation in order for this “individually-generated, sensitive to context, open to change, creativity” to be most effective. The young scientist in the example above and the summary of research conducted at the “new science” laboratories of HeartMath cited below agree that

When the body and mind are relaxed, the heart beats in an easy, consistent or "coherent" rhythm. Over a prolonged period, those relaxed electromagnetic and pressure pulses "entrain" the weaker electromagnetic operating signals throughout the brain and body to throb in synchronization with the heart. This is "flow," a state of relaxed and energized concentration when you perform at your best. It's like what athletes call "the zone." [12].

I have chosen to focus attention on scientific reports which describe the heart as a “creative hybrid system” in order to illustrate one of the significant aspects of the revolutionary way in which some scientists are speaking about natural processes in general. This revolution includes a shift from the study of automatic motion of autonomous parts to the descriptions of a variety of dynamic processes, from a single mechanical paradigm to an organic and even chaotic interpretation of many different non-equilibrium phenomena, including “self-organizing” and “dissipative structures”[13], from the certainty of either/or logic to the uncertainty of both/and/neither/nor contingency, from one solution mathematics to flexible and multiple outcome mathematics, from the conviction that scientific scholarship may provide a specific description of everything in the cosmos--a “final theory”-- to the realization that science is incapable even of a comprehensive self-description, etc.. With the aid of computer simulations, experiments are being conducted in virtual reality on a variety of complex and dynamic phenomena which were previously considered to be outside the scope of scientific inquiry. And even though at this point these “new science” descriptions and explanations have not been accepted by most orthodox scientist, they are certainly beginning to erode the confidence of those who are devotees of any final solution offered by any present form of reductionism. Indeed, some [14] believe it is not too soon to conclude that the collective work of these “multi-paradigm” scholars will have an impact on contemporary thought comparable to that which Galileo, Luther, Newton, et al. had on medieval thought.

Freedom and Necessity: Hybrid Modes of Organic Operation [15]

The example above illustrates how a heart operates in two distinct modes -- representing internal generation and external induction. When the heart is in an unstressed mode of operation, small but clearly discernible changes in the physical processes and in the local “information quantum field” generated by these physical changes are described using the language of quantum indeterminacy. Each operation -- the activation or inhibition of each neuron, the contraction or expansion of each muscle and each vascular cell, the movement of molecules at each synapse, the flow of ionized molecules in the blood, etc. -- generates an individual quantum field which is integrated with all other individual field fluctuations to produce an integrated harmonic local information field. At the same time, each process in the complex of cardio-function is independently aware of and responsive to changes in the flux of energy caused by all the other processes and recorded in this local information field. The locally generated field allows information to pass back and forth form one part out of the heart to all the other parts. In this way every part is instantaneously aware of any change, however small, which takes place in any of the other parts and may respond by making individually appropriate adjustments when these are indicated. So that, for example, the activation of one set of neurons may add information to the local field which will inhibit the activation of a second set of neurons; and the activation of the latter set may in turn inhibit the firing of the former. This intra-system communication via variations in a local information quantum field generates a smooth, but, as described by the music analogy above, complex rhythm of coordinated relaxation and expansion of the chambers of the heart. In this unstressed functional mode the heart may be called “self-reliant”; for it is relatively free from external influence, and may achieve “optimal flexibility and productivity” which Daviss refers to as “a state of relaxed and energized concentration called ‘the zone’” [16]. This independent self generating mode is also an example of what is called “bottom up causality”, because each individual part is self-reliant and contributes a unique energy pattern to the complex symphony of the local quantum field.

Of course this self-generating, independent, locally induced, “bottom-up”, mode of operation is rarely available to the human heart. Only when the heart is isolated from the adrenaline producing anxieties experienced by ordinary human consciousness, as in a state of dreamless sleep or when practicing “detachment meditation”, can it operate in this state of independence and freedom. As long as it is thought that there is some specific task which must be accomplished-- a specific goal to reach, an imagined place to go, a psychological or sociological situation to improve, an economic quota to achieve, a cognitive dilemma to resolve, etc. -- cardio-processes will be dominated by externally imposed necessity. Of course, and this is the point I wish to emphasize here, maximum productivity and maximum peace are generated and recorded in the local information field as the awareness that, “I am being the best that I can be!”, only when “bottom-up” creativity is fully receptive of and instantaneously responsive to the requirements of “top-down” determinism. In this state of hybrid harmony, when the heart desires what the mind wills, the two modes of cardio-function are united into one, and there is no recognizable difference between independence and dependence.

Applications of Hybrid Scholarship

One should not conclude from what has been said above that either the case against determinism as understood by the Newtonian/Laplacian mechanical paradigm or the case for ontological indeterminacy and the possibility of human freedom as understood by some interpretations of Quantum Theory has been firmly and finally established as “truth without error”. As a matter of fact it is important to remember that one of the fundamental assumptions of what I am calling “hybrid scholarship” is that there can never be a single “final theory” which will provide a complete description of all reality. One does not need to choose between determinacy and indeterminacy, reduction and non-reduction, mechanical and non-mechanical processes, theological and non-theological explanations of natural processes, etc. Rather hybrid scholarship requires that we establish creative ways to combine the insights of a variety of cognitive paradigms—even those which appear to be sometimes contradictory—from a variety of traditions of scholarship. I illustrate this point by pointing out that both reductionist and non-reductionists theories have played an important role the AAR-SBL.

In discussing the history of the development of our professional self-understanding in “Seven Theories of Religion”, Daniel Pals [17] lists five “reductionist” theories of religion—those proposed of E.B. Taylor, James Frazer, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx, and three “antireductionist” theories – those proposed by Marcia Eliade, E.E. Evans-Prichard, and Clifford Geertz. Regarding the present usefulness of these theories he concludes:

All things considered, the antireductionist position can be said to have gradually gained strength through the century… Needless to say the debate between the reductionist and the antireductionist remains very much alive to the present day, with the main tide of opinion moving somewhat away from reductionism and toward the opposition [18].

As a devotee of hybrid scholarship I am grateful to Pals and others for acknowledging that academic studies in religion and spirituality have been enriched by a passionate conversation among a variety of cognitive paradigms. In so far as I am aware, the SBL-AAR is the only 20th century academic institution which may be rightly called a “nexus of hybrid scholarship”. From the beginning of our chaotic union, reductionism, antireductionism, non-reduction, and positions which ignore the reduction/anti-reduction debate altogether, have been welcomed to this table of scholarly discourse. Using this hybrid structure we have generated a level of cognitive complexity found nowhere else in the American Academy, perhaps nowhere else in the history of scholarship. Therefore it is important to insist that one must not accept Pal’s conclusion that these varieties of scholarship are necessarily in opposition and conflict and that the only outcome of this complex conversation is that some voices, or perhaps only one, will win the right to determine the future of scholarship in religion, while other voices will be excluded from the nexus of cognitive development.

Similar suggestions are may be made with respect to the scholarship of teaching. A paper published on published on the AAR’s “Virtual Teaching and Learning Center” website [19], points out that there are three basic pedagogical paradigms available to those engaged in teaching about religion and spirituality. One of these paradigms is said to be useful in guiding the practical management of a course or curriculum. The authors say of the “instrumental paradigm” that it

views teaching in terms of the technical aspects of communication, focusing on problems of organization and group dynamics. According to this paradigm, the central questions about teaching revolved around mechanics: how best to manage the classroom, how to organize a syllabus, how to coordinate assignments with course goals, or how to balance lectures with discussions [20].

The “transmission paradigm” is said to be useful when

… imparting the specific concepts and tools that constitute one or another subdiscipline in the study of religion. Emphasizing the importance of content to supplement effective technique, this paradigm seeks to make students more knowledgeable about the ideas and methods that constitute special areas in religious studies, e.g., comparative religions, religious ethics, philosophy of religion, or scriptural interpretation [21].

And the authors say that the “rhetorical paradigm”, (also referred to as “transformational paradigm”),

views teaching as a dialogical, local, and practical art… a rhetorical approach envisions teaching as potentially transformative for everyone in the "public" of the classroom-including the teacher…. The chief goal of rhetorical teaching is… to empower individual voices and to provide a space for practicing critical skills and reflective inquiry about matters of personal and public importance. When seen in this way, the teaching of religion is designed … to energize knowledge, affectively engage students, and impart habits of mind that will be useful inside and outside the classroom. [22]

To these three teaching methods I wish to add what I call “content specific pedagogy”, a method of teaching which honors the teaching style and method of devotees of the religious or spiritual tradition under study. That is, when teaching about, e.g. “Evangelical Christianity”, or “Sufism”, or “Zen”, etc. it is suggested that a teacher who has become familiar with the instructional styles and methods of those who are recognized as “Master Teachers” in the tradition under consideration will be more effective than if these content specific pedagogical paradigms are ignored. Unlike the authors cited here, who clearly value and recommend the rhetorical/transformational paradigm more than the others reviewed, I wish to emphasize that teachers and their students will be most effectively served when each of these teaching methods is used with understanding and skill in the role for which it is designed. The development of complex cognitions requires complex pedagogy. Thirty-five years in the practice of scholarship of teaching, the scholarship of research, and the scholarship of service, as well as what I have learned recently from my studies of the new non-reductive sciences about the complex nature of reality--especially the varieties of “reality” generated by human consciousness-- persuades me that the several varieties of method, content, and context which are available to those who are responsible for the study of and teaching about religion and spirituality in the American Academy are treasures of our professional heritage. We preserve them, each and all, by our constant use. We need not, indeed, if we wish to maximize cognitive complexity in ourselves and those we serve, must not accept some “jewels” of this rich heritage and reject others. Just as the human heart is made happy and healthy by the harmonic integration of complex electro-chemical signals, so the human mind is most creative and adaptive when exposed to a complexity of cognitive possibilities. Rather than reduce our options by choosing one hermeneutical approach, or one pedagogical paradigm, or one expression of a tradition, etc. over others, I suggest we take the opportunity presented by the revolutionary insights of “new science” to terminate an era of cognitive violence imposed by the hegemonic dominance of various forms of reduction--theological, scientific, sociological, pedagogical, etc.-- and enjoy the freedom to be creative within the complex cognitive nexus of our precious heritage of hybrid scholarship.


[1] For the definitive discussion of chaos science see: James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin Books, 1988.)  This is the most significant work in the bibliography. It traces the history of the development of chaos science, describes a number of the critical experiments upon which chaos science is based, explains in layman's terms the mathematical tools which provide the theoretical foundation for chaos science, and shows how advances in this new science have been totally dependent upon “quantum leaps” in the efficiency and effectiveness of computer technology. The narrative style makes the book readable and takes one into the thought processes of the individual devotees of chaos science. There are many pictures and diagrams but few formulas. One needs no background in mathematics in order to enjoy this excellent work; it reads more like a mystery novel than a scholarly paper. Gleick expresses the revolutionary nature of this book and of the variety of scholarly disciplines which it discusses by saying in the prologue:

Where chaos began, classical science stops. For as long as the world has had physicists inquiring into the laws of nature, it has suffered a special ignorance about disorder in the atmosphere, in the turbulent sea, in the fluctuations of wildlife populations, in the oscillations of the heart and the brain. The irregular side of nature, the discontinuous and erratic side -- these have been puzzles to science, or worse, monstrosities.... Now chaos has become shorthand mainly for a fast-growing movement that is reshaping the fabric of the scientific establishment... Chaos has created special techniques for using computers and special kinds of graphic images and pictures that capture a fantastic and delicate structure underlying complexity.... To some physicist chaos is a science of process rather than state, of becoming rather than of being... The most passionate advocates of the new science go so far as to say that 20th-century science will be remembered for just three things: relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos. Chaos, they contend, has become the century's third great revolution in physical sciences. Like the first two revolutions, chaos cuts away at the tenets of Newton's physics. As one physicist put it: “Relativity eliminated the Newtonian illusion of absolute space and time; quantum theory eliminated the Newtonian dream of a controllable measurable process; and chaos eliminates the Laplacian fantasy of deterministic predictability."

Of course it is this "defeat of Laplacian determinism" by new science which makes the subject of this paper relevant.

[2] For those interested in studies in theology and new science, see Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, and Arthur R. Peacocke, Eds., Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory Publications, and Berkeley: The Center for Theological and Natural Sciences, 1997). This superb work is significant primarily for two reasons. Because it is a collection of fifteen research papers which explore the implications of chaos theory and complexity theory from a variety of theological perspectives, and because it displays a level of cognitive sophistication and complexity which is often lacking in the work of the devotees of chaos theory who approached an understanding of the issues raised from the point of view of the scholarship of science alone. This and the other volumes in this series are excellent examples of what I call "hybrid scholarship". These authors are magnificently articulate in the languages of both contemporary science and Christian theology; and their ability to merge physics with metaphysics, scientific theory with theological doctrine, mathematics with ethics, sociology with liturgy, psychology with spirituality, etc. represents, in my opinion, a unique achievement of Western scholarship. This volume and other works in this genre generate a wondrous nexus of scholarship in the humanities and in the sciences.

For more information on this genre see

[3] Noam Chomsky has been my mentor for the science of creativity, both because of his exceptional scholarly brilliance and because he is an excellent example of what I call a “born again devotee of new science”. Best known for his early reductive work in linguistics, he has become convinced by recent evidence generated by a variety of “cognitive sciences” that human language is a chaotic phenomenon which lends itself to no reductive description. His repudiation of former dogma is expressed in: Noam Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), and in a variety of personal “acts of penitence” described in a website provided, without his permission, by some of his many devotees. See  and

[4] Easy access to a summary of one version of “new science’s” understandings of human consciousness, or “soul”, are found in Casey Blood, Science Sense and Soul: The Mystical-Physical Nature of Human Existence (Renaissance Books, 2001). Blood is a retired professor of Physics and a student of Sufi Master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan whose home page is  Other works discussing this subject are Edward Bruce Bynum, The African Unconscious: Roots of Ancient Mysticism and Modern Psychology (Teachers College Press, 1999). Find more about Bynum at  Karl H. Pribram, Languages of the Brain: Experimental Paradoxes and Principles in Neuropsychology (Prentice-hall, 1971). Charles Tart, States of Consciousness (El Cerrito, California, Psychological Processes, Inc. 1983). Tart’s website listing scientists who have reported having personal “spiritual experiences” is relevant here:  Ken Wilber, The Holographic Paradigm and other Paradoxes (Bolder: Shambhala, 1982).

[5] David Suzuki,” The Sacred Balance”, Episode I: “Journey into the New World”. (PBS series).

[6] It is particularly significant that this demonstration takes place in a science lab at Harvard. Harvard was founded by scholars whose religious faith instructed them to believe that some truth was out of reach to human inquiry. Therefore one of the books on the Harvard seal was turned face down to indicate that questions about the ultimate nature of things must always remain a mystery. However, at some point, the mysterious face has been turned upward in an act of cognitive hubris which reflects the modern conviction that scientifically generated scholarship is capable of providing all the answers – a final resolution to all mystery. But the discoveries of these new sciences demonstrate that all books, not just those which represent religion and theology, but those which represent any form of human knowledge and understanding, should be partially turned face down. For according to this “new science” understanding there can be no certainty, no “final theory”, no ultimate resolution of fundamental paradoxes in any field of scholarship. See for example, Ilya Prigogine, The End of Certainty (The Free Press, 1996). 

The “end of certainty” and the “end of scholarly hubris and violence” which the illusion of certainty generates are also announced by Chomsky in a “State of the Profession Address”, to the faculty of the University of Connecticut Graduate School, C- SPAN Videotape #123371. There he says, (partially my paraphrase)

that the “cutting edge” of American scholarship is no longer located in physics, chemistry, and/or biology, as it has been at various times throughout this century. Rather, our attention is now directed, or certainly should be directed, to the study of mind and consciousness.

That with regard to our present understanding of what we call “mind” and “consciousness” and what we call the products of mind and conscious, such as “learning”, “cognition”, “understanding”, “truth”, “knowledge”, “rationality”, “clear and distinct thought”, “theory”, “paradigm”, “language”, “text” etc. “a long tradition of research and speculation is seriously off the mark in its beliefs about general learning processes and associative theories of learning.”


Perhaps I might add one final remark about the limits of understanding. Many of the questions that inspired the modern scientific revolution are not even on the agenda. These include issues of will and choice, which were taken to be the core of the mind-body problem - the problem that was undermined by Newton, when he showed that there were no bodies in any meaningful sense.

Hence, that all attempts at reduction and normalization-- whether physical, chemical, biological, sociological, economic, historical, theological, logical, or of whatever type-- have failed, and that further efforts to normalize scholarship through reduction should be abandoned on theoretical as well as ethical grounds.

Hence, that we would do well to abandoned the scholarship of hubris and violence, which has dominated the American Academy in all fields and areas of inquiry, and

to keep in some corner of our minds David Hume's conclusion about Nature's ultimate secrets and the obscurity in which they ever did and ever will remain, and particularly the reasoning that led him to that judgment, and its confirmation in the subsequent history of the hard sciences.

[7] Glick, Chaos, pp. 11-31. This principle of hyper-sensitivity to initial conditions was vividly illustrated recently during the National League Baseball playoffs when the spontaneous act of one fan altered radically the flow of the game and, according to most, caused the home team to lose.

[8] See a summary of this research in Bennett Daviss, “A Mind of its Own” at,  pp. 4&5. A more complete discussion is reported in Paul Pearsell, “The Heart’s Code”,

[9] Suzuki, “The Sacred Balance”.

[10] Daviss, p.2.

[11] Suzuki, “The Sacred Balance”.

[12] Daviss, p.3. Much of the research reported here was conducted at HeartMath Inc.

[13] Glick, Chaos, passim.

[14] Prigogine, End of Certainty, pp.1-7.

[15] This summary follows Blood, Science, Sense & Soul, pp. 115-149.

[16] Daviss, “A Mind of Its Own”, p. 3.

[17] Daniel L. Pals, Seven Theories of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[18] Ibid. p. 273.

[19] Richard B. Miller, Laurie L. Patton, and Stephen H. Webb, “Rhetoric, Pedagogy, and the Study of Religions”, at Rhetoric, Pedagogy, and the Study of Religions, and at

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

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