Evolution of Consciousness Discourse

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Jennifer Gidley:

"By consciousness, I am referring to the type of complex consciousness that is expressed by human thinking as it develops through various expressions over time, both historico-culturally(phylogenesis) and within individual psycho-spiritual development (ontogenesis). This is referred to in the consciousness studies literature as phenomenal consciousness or qualia, which is understandably described by David Chalmers as the hard problem, as distinct from simple perceptual consciousness which Chalmers calls the easy problem (1995, 1996). It includes, but is not limited to, cognition. My perspective on consciousness, which will be developed throughout this paper in the light of an elucidation of Steiner’s, Gebser’s and Wilber’s views, departs from much of the current, neurobiology-based, consciousness studies literature which claims that consciousness is dependent primarily on the brain for its existence.

My usage of the term evolution cannot be nutshelled here but will emerge throughout this paper. At the very least my meaning includes biological, socio-cultural and philosophical discourses. The notion of socio-cultural evolution has been contested since the abuses arising from 19th century socio-biological models—such as Social Darwinism—during the 2nd World War. Anthropological critiques include claims that cultural evolution models are ethnocentric, unilineal, too oriented towards technological materialism, privileging progress rather than preservation and speculative rather than evidence based. How this narrative addresses these issues will be discussed under theoretical issues. A range of disciplines and discourses that can inform evolution of consciousness are indicated in Figure 1 below. The evolution of consciousness discourse has a relatively short history in the academy.

The notion was originally seeded by several German Idealists and Romantics towards the end of the 18th century. Almost a century before Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859/1998), Johann Gottfried von Herder published

This Too a Philosophy of History for the Formation of Humanity (1774/2002), setting out the notion that “there exist radical mental differences between historical periods, that people's concepts, beliefs, sensations, etc. differ in important ways from one period to another” (Forster, 2001). Von Herder’s seminal ideas on the evolution of consciousness were extended in manifold ways by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling.

These pioneering individuals both conceptualized and enacted an integrative worldview—for example Goethe was an eminent scientist, philosopher and literary pioneer. In particular, Schelling’s contribution foreshadowed current notions of conscious evolution (Teichmann, 2005). Although inspired by earlier unitive worldviews, these integral philosophers also pointed forward, beyond the limitations of both pre-modern, mythic consciousness and modernist formal rationality, foreshadowing a more conscious awakening of a postformal , integral consciousness.

In the early20th century these ideas were further developed by several pioneers (Aurobindo, 2000; Bergson,1911/1944; Gebser, 1970/2005; Lovejoy, 1936; Neumann, 1954/1995; Steiner, 1926/1966b,1959a; Teilhard de Chardin, 1959/2002, 1959/2004).The general notion of evolution—and thence consciousness evolution—became academically colonized by classical biology as a result of the mid 19th century interpretations of Darwin’s work.

Clearly, biology as a discipline has been transformed by such 20th century developments as chaos and complexity theories, with classical Darwinism and neo-Darwinism more recently making way for emergence theories (Braxton, 2006; Deacon, 2003; Goodenough & Deacon,2006; Thompson, 1991). In spite of these developments within biology, science during much of the 20th century was grounded in a materialist worldview. Darwinian evolutionary notions reputedly also influenced other late 19th century socio-cultural theories, such as pioneering sociologist, Auguste Comte’s (1855/2003) views on social progress, and Herbert Spencer’s(1857) developmental and progressive theories—most notably, Social Darwinism (Barnard &Spencer, 1998). The evolution discourse remained dominated by a physicalist form of biology, such that significant pioneering works on the evolution of consciousness, that were inclusive of spiritual dimensions, were ignored, dismissed or marginalized by the science of the day (Aurobindo, 2000; Bergson, 1911/1944; Gebser, 1970/2005; Neumann, 1954/1995; Steiner,1926/1966b, 1959a; Teilhard de Chardin, 1959/2002, 1959/2004). Although the last few decades have seen a reconsideration of some of these pioneers—particularly as a result of integral approaches to the evolution of consciousness—the new biological sciences still retain a powerful claim on the evolution of consciousness discourse (Loye, 2004). However, the growing awareness of a potential planetary crisis has highlighted the significance of finding new ways of thinking, if humankind is to move through our current complex challenges. This critical imperative appears to be mobilizing researchers from a wide range of disciplines to broaden the notion of evolution of consciousness beyond its biological bounds. Although only a small number of articles are as yet appearing in academic journals, there is evidence of some disciplinary diversity.

László (2006) aptly sums up this critical imperative in the following rallying call: Einstein was right: the problems created by the prevalent way of thinking cannot be solved by the same way of thinking. This is a crucial insight. Without renewing our culture and consciousness we will be unable to transform today’s dominant civilization and overcome the problems generated by its shortsighted mechanistic and manipulative thinking.. . . The conscious orientation of the next cultural mutation—the shift to a new civilization—depends on the evolution of our consciousness. This evolution has become a precondition of our collective survival. (pp. 39, 77)The evolution of consciousness has become a central theme in much of integral theory. In its many forms integral theory is making a significant contribution to the discourse. Yet leading integral theorists, such as Wilber and László, appear not to see eye to eye in their somewhat rivalrous endeavors to each create an Integral Theory of Everything (TOE) , within which their writings on the evolution of consciousness could be theoretically situated (László, 2007; Wilber,2000a). A major distinction appears to be that László (2007) builds his general evolution theory in a more formal, systematic manner. He claims that he built significantly on the theoretical traditions of Whitehead’s process theory, Bertalanffy’s general system theory and Prigogine’s non-linearly bifurcating dissipative structures (p. 164). Wilber’s process appears to have been much broader and more diverse—but perhaps less systematic—gathering together as many theorists in as many fields of knowledge as he could imagine, then arranging them according to the system that he developed—which he calls an integral operating system (Wilber, 2004).Another difference is that although they both appear to use imagination and intuition in the construction of their theoretical approaches, Wilber does not make this explicit whereas László(2007, p. 162) does. Numerous other researchers, particularly over the last decade, have also contributed to the evolution of consciousness discourse, but the various theoretical strands stillstand in relative isolation from each other. These issues will be discussed below. It is my view that no single discipline or field can colonize the evolution of consciousness discourse — not even science. Because of its complexity the topic can only adequately be approached in a transdisciplinary manner. Nor can it be colonized by a particular theoretical approach, no matter how apparently integral that approach claims to be. Such disciplinary and theoretical constraints would only serve to limit our potential understanding."