top of page
Search
  • Writer's pictureJonathan Cobb

Consciousness

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

A type of eschatology has emerged in the modern world that sees hope in the evolution of consciousness. This idea stems from German idealism, especially from Hegel, who saw the course of history as Mind or Spirit unfolding upon itself through dialectical contradictions. Hegel posited a number of triads that Mind encounters in its unfolding. These have often been summarized as “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.” However, the way he described it was “abstract-negative-concrete.” That is, there is first an idea that because of its abstractness invites contradiction, and through the interplay between these contradictions emerges something concrete that incorporates the contradictions within a higher synthesis. In this way, Mind is continually transcending itself. For Hegel, the Mind here is not merely the individual human mind but some transcendent absolute Mind that is manifest within our own consciousness. In this scheme, human consciousness is universal consciousness coming to know itself.


This idealistic vision has captured the imagination of Romantics. The sense of consciousness reaching toward some higher plane has motivated mystics throughout the ages. Yet the mystic goes through a self-emptying process, in which mind is cleared away so that pure presence may be found. The mystic seeks after the always-already. The evolution of consciousness as seen in Hegelian idealism is one not of self-emptying but self-transcendence. Mind is constantly evolving to encompass more of the world within its understanding.


This idea was advanced by other thinkers over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin saw a pattern of history in what he called the Law of Complexity-Consciousness. The idea is that from the beginning the universe has been creating new and more complex arrangements of matter that manifest in new emerging levels of consciousness. Matter evolves from the simplest subatomic particles to form more complex arrangements, including lifeforms and ultimately sentient lifeforms like ourselves. Through the development of communications technology, he saw humans creating a new layer of consciousness called the Noosphere. The Noosphere is a kind of emerging collective mind that connects our individual minds together, developing our own consciousness in the process. For Chardin, this becomes the universal Mind that encompasses all. An ordained Jesuit, he tended to leave out leave out explicit theology from some of his more public works, but in his more religious works this universal Mind is understood as the Cosmic Christ. Humans, he thought, were on a path of taking on the mind of Christ through cosmic self-understanding.


Jean Gebser sought to do a kind of archaeology of human consciousness through the different “mutations” it had undergone. Deep in humanity’s history there was an archaic consciousness of a simple sensate nature like that of other animals. Later there develops a magical, animistic consciousness that sees energetic correlations between entities and seeks to master these connections ritualistically in order to gain some advantage over one’s surroundings. From here emerges the mythic structure, in which there is there is not only correlation but narrative tying these connections together. The cycles of life and of nature are ritualized and incorporated into stories that give a sense of meaning and belonging to life. Next comes the mental structure, in which these multiple narratives are interrogated in the search for a single rational structure. Here we see the beginnings of philosophy and science, but also monotheism and rational religion. The trinity has a particular symbolic importance for this structure, which is three-dimensional, compared to the two-dimensional mythic structure, the one-dimensional magic structure, and the zero-dimensional archaic structure. Gebser sees an emerging fourth-dimensional structure he calls the integral-aperspectival structure. Under integral consciousness, the mind itself becomes an object of consciousness. The totalizing rational systems of the mental structure become relativized within a meta-perspective that is integrate different perspectives within itself. A new experience of time emerges in which rather than rational categories of past, present, and future (or in addition to them), time is experienced as an intensity, with the past crystalized in the present in a trajectory toward the future in one continuous movement.


The term “Integral” was taken up by the Hindu mystic Sri Aurobindo, who blended the mystical consciousness of the Hindu tradition with the evolving consciousness of the Hegelian tradition into his system called “Integral Yoga.” Followers of this school founded the California Institute of Integral Studies, which developed an interdisciplinary curriculum of philosophy, psychology, anthropology, integrative health, and several other disciplines with a vision of the spiritual development of the whole person.


The Integral mantle would later be claimed by Ken Wilber, a transpersonal psychologist turned philosopher and guru (though he himself rejects that label, suggesting the traditional Hindu “pandit” title would be more accurate). Drawing from Chardin, Gebser, Aurobindo, Piaget, and several others, he developed a four-quadrant model by which all phenomena have subjective and objective as well as individual and collective correlates. These four quadrants are always “tetra-arising.” He incorporates the evolutionary scheme of Gebser and Aurobindo with the Spiral Dynamics developmental theory developed by Don Beck and Chris Cowan.


This color-coded scheme sees Orange-rational consciousness reaching critical mass in Western society during the Enlightenment, but with Blue-mythic consciousness still playing a powerful role and Green-relative consciousness beginning to emerge around the mid-twentieth century with postmodern thought. His scheme goes on to suggest new Yellow and Turquoise levels of Integral consciousness standing above the Green-relative level, able to incorporate the relativization of perspectives into a still higher meta-perspective. Each level is supposed to “transcend and include” its predecessors and therefore make an object of its previous level within a new perspective.


Perspective

For all his emphasis on “transcend and include,” Wilber more often than not chastises Green-relative consciousness and invokes it to project the laziest cultural stereotypes of postmodernism onto it. He uses his schema of development levels respond to criticism by simple categorization. Those who disagree with him are necessarily Green or below because they must not be able to comprehend his perspective. Meanwhile, he assures his followers that by virtue of the fact that they are drawn to his work, they must necessarily be at an Integral level of consciousness.


This kind of snob appeal is a great pitfall of this “conscious evolution” perspective. It flatters the ego to think that it is on the cutting edge of evolution. One finds this conceit in the New Age concept of “Indigo Children” – a concept with its origins in Theosophy. A similar occult idea lay at in the Nazi idea of the Aryan race, which also has common roots in Theosophy. There is always an impulse in reactionary thought to see oneself as belonging to some sort of “natural aristocracy.” It justifies one’s place of leadership and power in the world one is seeking to make.


Centering consciousness over material conditions tends to have reactionary implications. The solipsistic “Law of Attraction” of so much New Age discourse takes Just World Theory to the extreme, implying that any negative or positive events in one’s life are a result of the thought patterns they put out into the universe. Such a perspective implies all victims of war, rape, and genocide were victims not of their oppressors but of their own thought patterns. No wonder this new capitalistic pseudo-religion has spread so widely in the world of multi-level marketing: it means they just need to believe in their own success and they will achieve the wealth they desire, rather than being exploited by the cult they have joined. It is also no surprise that “Corporate Mindfulness” has become a new buzzword in the modern work world, emphasizing self-care as a palliative to the soul-crushing banality of corporate world.


For this reason, the left since Marx has tended to focus on material conditions. Marx inverted Hegel’s idealism into a historical materialism centered not on the development not of consciousness but on the forces of production. He saw mind not as encountering itself but as arising from material conditions, which were subject to their own internal contradictions. The contractions here are not between abstract ideas but between classes. Class struggle was for him the driving force of history, with each mode of production producing its own ruling class and exploited class, whose struggle for liberation would produce a new mode of production with its own class structure until eventually a classless society known as communism would emerge.


Consciousness here emerges from relationships. Therefore, to raise people’s consciousness involves addressing relationships. By building solidarity with one another in a common struggle for liberation, new relationships are forged that overcome the servile false consciousness induced by the machinery of capitalism. In these new relationships of comradery, bonds are formed in which people not only share their social lives with one another, but fight for another so that all may benefit.


A revolutionary approach must understand consciousness as a both a tool for liberation and as that which must be liberated. There is no hope in the evolution of consciousness without the transformation of the world. This is why we must hold to the World to Come. We must seek what the EZLN call a “world where many worlds fit.” The drive to advance and achieve aperspectival consciousness is a good one, but it means nothing if it is only gazing back upon itself rather than applying itself to the fight for a better world for all.


Aperspectival consciousness must see through itself outward toward the world.

One does not need to know another’s level of consciousness to address their basic material needs. The needs of the person will always have some personal and cultural elements, but there are universal needs such as food, shelter, family, friendship, and purpose that are essential to the full development of the person. Aristotle did not need Integral consciousness to understand this, even if he had ethnocentric commitments that prevented him from seeing its full implications.


Where an integral perspective helps is in allowing us to include new spheres of concern into our awareness. We learn to make our own upbringing and cultural background an object of consciousness, and through this we can see that different cultural visions of the good life can have value without needing to impose one way of life on all. We become able to hold our own perspectives while holding room for multiple perspectives, in which multiple truth and value systems can coexist. This does not mean a vulgar relativism in which all perspectives are equal, but rather a pluralism in which these different perspectives form an ecosystem of perspectives that mutually inform and improve one another.


Culture

A pedagogical society must cultivate the capacity for self-actualization. This means developing virtues conducive to communal participation as well as self-examination. Virtue is not some strict set of rules we must follow, but noble qualities to be cultivated. Virtue is the art of living well. Proper formation requires community. We learn how to be contributing members of that community, and in so doing we cultivate the virtues of that community. But aren't the community's virtues subjective? Doesn't this get us into cultural relativism - the same "Green" mentality that Wilber so forcefully rages against?


On the contrary: this is simply a recognition that we can never look behind culture. Culture is the lens through which we see everything else. There is no culture-free world we can objectively point to. We can learn about other cultures to enrich our understanding, but we will always be observing these cultures from the perspective of our own cultural background. When a scientist makes a measurement of some phenomenon, they are using a scientific language that has a specific history tied to cultural developments an cultural assumptions. This in no way means that they aren't describing objective phenomena - only that they are describing it through a culturally conditioned conceptual framework.


Thomas Kuhn described how science advances through paradigm shifts. A paradigm is an explanatory framework by which one is able to understand and examine phenomena. A paradigm is not just a set of theories and evidence, but a standard by which one judges what constitutes valid evidence, observations, and inferences. Kuhn showed how the history of science is not one of continuous advancement but of shifting and competing paradigms. Since each paradigm has its own standards of evidence and inference, there is no objective standard to which one can appeal to settle the dispute. However, paradigms can become messy when trying to explain anomalies. The epicycles of the planets presented anomalies for the Ptolemaic model that were more easily explained by the Copernican model. This did not disprove the Ptolemaic model. It did, however, give the Copernican model a competitive advantage as new anomalies emerged that were predictable from within that model while the Ptolemaic model found itself increasingly on the defensive.


This kind of competition forces each paradigm to evolve and better itself in order face these challenges and present new ones to the competing paradigm. Paradigms may find ways to incorporate aspects of one another so that they begin to resemble each other in significant ways. This convergent evolution can apply to cross-cultural understanding. Genuine cultural exchange can occur when cultures are able to understand one another's perspectives and learn from them without either appropriating them or imposing them on others. Even if one wishes to convert the other to a particular idea, one must first undergo a conversion of one's own to understand the perspective from which they approach the idea. In doing so, they will be able to understand the new idea from within their own framework.


Moral revolutions occur when a cultural practice is seen from an outsider's perspective that is then incorporated into the cultural paradigm. Kwame Anthony Appiah describes how this happened in the case of dueling, the slave trade, and Chinese foot binding, and expresses hope that it might happen with honor killings. Foot binding came to be seen as bringing shame and dishonor to China in the eyes of the world. This did not mean adopting the value systems of other cultures. It meant seeing their culture from within an ecology of perspectives, and incorporating that perspective into their own value system.


Of course, we must also avoid considering any culture as monolithic and self-contained. Culture is porous, and is constantly evolving as it is reproduced in each generation. Subcultures can cross cultural boundaries, and different cultural groups can exist within a larger culture. Culture exists wherever norms exist, and norms only take a group of three to establish: the differences between two people are simply differences, and it takes a third party to establish a norm by which deviations can be judged. Any individual can participate in multiple cultures, and it is in this multiple participation that personal identity is formed.


Hegelian idealism and Marxist materialism dance around the element of culture, which is both ideal and material. Culture is constituted by shared beliefs, values, epistemologies, rituals, shred understandings, practices, and crucially, history. It is the habits of thought and deed, as well as the stories and narratives passed down that tie those habits to this shared history.


Culture is material in the sense that it affects how we relate not only to one another, but also to the natural world. Whether we conceive of something as a commodity, a taboo object, a relic, or a sacrament is a cultural determination that affects how we interact with it. We do not have culture on one side and matter on the other, but a nexus of relations that are both cultural and material. Our relationship to objects is mediated by our relationship to one another, and our relationship to one another is mediated by our relationship to objects. Habits of thought and deed interpenetrate one another,


Capitalism has colonized culture through endless commoditization. Commoditization is a process by which we are alienated from the objects around us by their appearing to us as instrumental values. The value of an object becomes an extrinsic value that becomes quantified into exchange value. Use value and exchange value both distort the dimension of intrinsic value that might be imbued in an object by culture. Transforming our society means not only overcoming the machinery of capitalism, but the culture of commodification upon which that machinery is built.


Creativity

Our capacity to thrive is deeply rooted in our capacity for creative adaptation. There is no one utopian blueprint that meets everyone’s needs. Rather, we must recognize that our innate creativity is an essential part of what it means for us to thrive. To fulfill the human telos, therefore, means not simply imposing one person’s creative vision upon everyone else. We must instead build a society that can cultivate the creativity of its members in the most convivial way.


This creativity means having the freedom to pursue crafts and skills that interest us with as few social or economic barriers as possible. The paradigm of schooling we have now is built around funneling people through a pre-determined curriculum by which they are all compared in terms of their fitness for that curriculum and style of learning, and then go on to earn credentials that solidify an existing class hierarchy. We call this “learning,” but it is in fact a form of gatekeeping that continues the existence of an elite class. No amount of charter schools or vouchers can correct this fundamental fact. Schooling as we know it is about social control, not true learning.


An educational system that truly honors the human drive to learn and better ourselves would encompass society itself, rather than confining itself to some institution called “school.” On some level, we already understand this. When we get out into the work world, regardless of what educational credentials we’ve earned, we learn most on the job. The educational requirements for most jobs have little to do with the knowledge necessary to perform the job, and everything to do with ensuring that only a certain elite class of people will be able to apply. Outlawing education-based discrimination of this kind would be a vast step forward toward a more equitable society that overcomes these class barriers, as well as the racial and gendered barriers that intersect with class.


A more flourishing society would be one in which work and education are intertwined. Skill-shares could help spread crafts far and wide, and allow people to discover their own creative muse. People could organize on the basis of shared disciplines, as the guilds of old once did, and collaborate on projects to produce great wonders. Yet whereas the guilds guarded their secrets closely to preserve their hierarchy, the free exchange of information could help everyone achieve their greatest creative potential.


Competition is often credited with spurring human creativity. Yet this is only true when compared to monopoly power, in which one entity corners the market on some commodity. The real contrast to competition is not monopoly, but cooperation, and it is here that we see creativity truly flourish. A great deal of market competition these days is simply trying to work around the patents of others, or selling something slightly different from the competition under a different brand name. This produces variety, but not innovation. Innovation happens when one person can build upon the ideas of another, and another is able to build on theirs. The collaboration of minds holds far greater creative potential than any mind of its own accord.


We already see the power of collaboration in the open-source movement. These developments that people are able to make in their spare time for free give us a mere taste of what would be possible if they had full access to patented technology and could pursue this passion without having to worry about how to support themselves. People have an innate need to create, and the demand that they must sell their labor to someone else for a living is one of the greatest blocks to finding where their true creative abilities lie.


Creativity requires resiliency. We must learn to be resilient enough as a society to support resiliency in others. This means building resilient systems. Stuart Kauffman describes a “razor’s edge” between chaos and order at which creativity thrives. An overly structured system becomes too rigid and can by toppled over by external shocks. An overly chaotic system is subject to positive feedback loops that cause cascading effects throughout the whole system. The “razor’s edge” he describes is an ordered system with low level chaos that produces negative feedback loops to maintain equilibrium.


This means creating networks of “nodes” that have connections to their neighbors but are not so overconnected that they distribute perturbations throughout a system. In institutional terms this means having systems of institutions with each serving a select community while connected to other similar institutions serving other communities. No one institution becomes so large as to exert hegemony over the whole system, but the innovations of one can quickly be spread throughout the system if successful, but absorbed and recovered from quickly if it leads to undesirable results. In this way, a system of loose confederation allows for a system of experimental laboratories in which innovation can be optimized and failure nullified.



Frailty

I do not offer any one blueprint for an ideal system, for my point is precisely that no one blueprint is possible or desirable. It is rather a matter of ingenuity and cooperative problem-solving, upon which human society has always depended. The problems that arise in such system must be addressed by the stakeholders of the system itself, and cannot be addressed otherwise. Cooperative decision-making among stakeholders gives us no solutions unto itself, but is instead the prerequisite for any authentic solutions to emerge at all. There is no shortcut to a society that works for all without empowering the very people it is meant to serve.


This is where we are confronted with something unsettling. It turns out that people are fallen creatures who are driven by selfish, spiteful, prideful, short-sighted, and foolish motives. Changing social structures alone will not be sufficient to bring about this World to Come. There is a certain strain of leftist thought that sees such frailties as simply products of oppressive systems. There is some truth to this: economic inequality has strong correlations with violent crime, environmental stress, mental illness, abuse, and any number of social ills. Yet one must not be deceived that we can solve these things simply by replacing one system with another.


An account of before and after “the revolution” is misleading. Political revolutions are frail things which easily revert to the oppressive systems they were meant to overthrow. A lasting social revolution must be undertaken, and such a revolution cannot be reduced to such a single event. The course of such a revolution may indeed see multiple uprisings, justice movements, insurrections, even wars, but these are merely highlights amid a period of chrysalis, in which the new world begins to emerge.


The move to a more communal, democratic society will not by itself alleviate many of the problems we face, but it will frame what must be done to address the problems that arise. The oppressions visited upon humanity by empire, slavery, class society, and authoritarianism consist first and foremost of taking away the voices of those over whom they rule. One class of people is given subjectivity, making decisions over the fate of others, while the others are objectified as objects for the ruling class to manipulate and direct as they see fit.


Correcting this does not mean that people will no longer be petty, hateful, selfish, or rude to one another, but it does mean that the systems that enabled one class to treat another class this way without consequence will no longer be there. People will have to wrestle with one another’s shortcomings, face the difficulties of coming to amicable agreements, struggle with personality conflicts, and even deal with serious transgressions. And they will have to do this in a way that does not rely on the coercive authority of one class over another.


It is fear of our own frailty that leads to the psychology of domination. We flee from our humanity to arm ourselves against the pain and loss in life. We come to despise weakness in others because it reminds us of our own weakness. We come to believe in some form of Just World Theory, the idea that the universe is organized in such a way that people get what they deserve – that people who suffer do so because they are bad and that people who are successful are so because they are good. This allows us to place some distance between ourselves and those who suffer, and deny our own vulnerability. The poor, the homeless, the downtrodden and oppressed are blamed for their own plight. This allows us comfort in the belief that our own goodness will protect us from their fate.


Such lies we tell ourselves prevent the empathic response needed to actually address the suffering in this world and lift ourselves up together. We build armor to protect ourselves from our own humanity when it is in our common humanity that we find our ultimate strength. Yet we all too often stop short of humanity as such, and instead create in-groups and out-groups. We exalt our own group as superior and more deserving. We use power to build systems that institutionalize our privilege, and if we belong to some out-group that is oppressed by another in-group that wields power over us, we direct our resentment toward another out-group in whose oppression we too can participate.


We justify ourselves by making ourselves the victims of those we victimize, often by conflating them with our actual oppression. It is common, for example, in much of the global south, to characterize homosexuality as a product of colonialism, which they are rightly fighting against. It is an easy matter to proclaim that one is always on the side of the oppressed when the question of which side is oppressed one is precisely what is at issue. Such a question is far from unanswerable, though it will require nuance. The intersectional identities we bear form a vast matrix of ways we have both power and oppression.


Yet power itself ends up having power over us. White supremacy keeps white people united with their oppressors by a common racial designation while preventing them from developing solidarity with others on the basis of common struggle. Men benefit from patriarchy only at the cost of their own psychic mutilation through toxic masculinity. Even the wealthy capitalist is trapped in a mentality of endless accumulation with which they can never be satisfied. As Christ said, “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” (Mk 8:36).


We may never learn to be fully comfortable with our vulnerability, for there will always times when we need to guard ourselves from being hurt. We can, however, learn to stop stigmatizing it. Repressed vulnerability can make monsters of us. We seek after power to make ourselves invincible, but that same power devours our soul from within. True freedom requires that we recognize our vulnerability, tend to it with compassion and discernment, and view others through the same compassionate lens.


We must recognize that we cannot build a utopia that does not have space for failure. A successful social system will not be impenetrable; it must be resilient. We must give people the space to make mistakes on the road to self-improvement while giving them the support needed to bounce back and find their path. A system of transformative justice is needed that can secure people from harm while giving space for those who have wronged others to grow and make restitution.


Our current criminal justice system is overwhelmingly based on retribution. Even attempts to reform offenders often fail to provide a meaningful way of living for them after serving their time. Caring for the basic needs of all means extending that care not just to the innocent but to those we deem guilty as well. Victims of violence deserve safety, and any justice system must provide for that. But there is no safety in holding people back from bettering themselves.


We are a deeply traumatized civilization. We are not meant for the daily stress and anxiety of life in the megamachine. We have been isolated and turned against one another by power games of empire and capital. Our lives have been shaped by 5,000 years of patriarchy, conquest, slavery, exploitation, and commodification that have left a deep wound in our collective psyche. A true revolution requires not just the overthrow of the old society, but a way to heal these wounds. We must develop a culture of healing, in which we are able to hold space for each other in our vulnerability so that we may heal together. Only in such a culture can we truly become self-realized.

44 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page