Evolutionary Cosmology

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Robert Kleinman:

"After Darwin, many efforts were made to place evolution in a larger context than that of natural selection with its Spencerian overtones. This led to the revival of evolutionary cosmology, which is an attempt to account for the universe as a whole in terms of the idea of evolution. “Evolution” means an unrolling or unfolding in an orderly process of development through successive stages to a more integrated whole. As used in science, it connotes little more than a mechanical change from simple to complex forms. But the term also describes developmental theories of life and consciousness, suggesting an inner potential moving toward some further result or goal. Consequently, it already carries a teleological sense that makes its application to the process of natural selection questionable. There is an ambiguity in the meaning of evolution that contributes to widespread misunderstanding of its import. Besides a purely Darwinian picture of complex speciation rising out of primordial slime, it can also suggest the cumulative descent of divinity in a succession of advancing organic forms.

Philosophically, evolution implies an energetic universe developing in time. Many cosmologies could account for this, but the scientific situation is more restricted. Biologists are primarily interested in the mechanisms responsible for the appearance of new species of living things on earth. Darwin’s idea of natural selection is one kind of mechanism, but it is far from a cosmological theory."



Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution

Robert Kleinman:

The French philosopher Bergson offered a theory of creative evolution based on the idea of a cosmic life force, or vital impulse (élan vital), which is driving the universe forward in an ever-growing complexity of forms.6 It reveals itself dynamically in living things, spurring the evolution of instinct and intelligence in them. Contrary to Darwinism, he sees evolution as a creative process continually producing new forms in a spontaneous and unpredictable way. Life improvises as it goes, its action being comparable to a rocket bursting into numerous sparks whose spent cinders fall back as dead matter. In this way, matter is a product of the life force, counteracting its upward thrust with a downward inertial tendency. For Bergson, the universe is a continuous, nonrepetitive movement of life without any static background or ultimate purpose. Life is identified with pure duration and can only be known through intuitive feeling. Intuition is opposed to intellect, which cuts reality into pieces and is unable to grasp the world as a continuous whole. Only intuition, a kind of intellectual sympathy, can enter into the inexpressible heart of things and identify with the pure flow of duration.

Bergson rejects teleology as well as mechanism, because he interprets the former in a finalistic sense: the end determines the direction of evolution. Since both teleology and mechanism are deterministic for him, determination by the future (finalism) is just as restrictive as determination by the past (mechanism). If mechanism and teleology are both deterministic, then no scope would remain for freedom and novelty in the world. Bergson dismisses them both in favor of his idea of creative evolution. In his view, evolution is a continuous march toward novel creations which are not determined by either the past or the future. But, again, finalism is only one way of interpreting teleology. An end or purpose need not be something imposed on the universe from outside. Even an internal purpose does not imply absolute necessity; on the contrary, it can suggest that some orderly nonmechanical process of development is at work in the world. Change without any ordering principle is nothing more than an indiscriminate display of energy that leads nowhere. Thus, Bergson’s attempt to introduce pure freedom and spontaneity into the evolutionary process fails to offer a reasonable alternative to Darwinian mechanistic ideas. But his theory stresses that evolution is a cumulative process inherent in time itself. He sees reality as the steady advance of the élan vital involving perpetual novelty rather than mechanical repetition. While his universe lacks a universal purpose to guide it, ample room remains for the attainment of lesser goals in Life’s blind, unquenchable thirst for fulfillment.

More information: Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution. Tr. Arthur Mitchell (New York, 1911).


Emergent Evolutionism

Robert Kleinman:

"Another attempt to develop a non-mechanistic theory of evolution was the emergent evolutionism of the English philosopher Samuel Alexander. He presented his ideas in a massive book entitled Space, Time and Deity. Alexander called the ultimate reality “SpaceTime,” arguing that space and time are interdependent and cannot exist as separate entities. This original cosmic stuff is prior to matter, being identified with pure motion. Matter is composed of motions made up of the point-instants of Space-Time. Matter, Life, and Mind are universal qualities that emerge successively from Space-Time, influenced by a creative urge (Nisus) that carries the universe upward through various emergent levels. Evolution is expected to continue beyond Mind to a higher level called “Deity.”

This is a relative term, however, since it always refers to the next level that is still to emerge. Just what quality Deity will possess is unpredictable before it appears. Each emergent quality in evolution is the result of the complexities attained at the previous level, but cannot be reduced to it. There is therefore a discontinuity among the levels that renders new qualities genuinely novel; this is the meaning of “emergent evolution,” which stands in sharp contrast to Darwinian mechanism.

Emergence of a new quality in the universe is not the direct outcome of preceding conditions but an entirely unanticipated event that seems to render evolution inexplicable. For Alexander, the process is said to begin with Space-Time, the basic stuff of reality, though devoid of life and consciousness. How then shall we understand the emergence of higher principles like Life and Mind from it? Alexander’s conception of Nisus as an evolutionary urge inherent in Space-Time is also suspect. Their relationship is not clear, since an insentient reality like Space-Time could not have creative urges. Alexander thus does not account for the mysterious Nisus that is supposedly responsible for evolution.

The failure to offer an explanation for the discontinuous jumps between successive levels seems to admit an irrational element into his philosophy of evolution. Nevertheless, he raised an important issue with the conception of an evolutionary progression that does not end with the emergence of Mind in the universe."


Teilhard de Chardin's Evolutionary Theism

Robert Kleinman:

"Our last example of a non-mechanistic theory is the type of evolutionary theism found in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. He was not a professional philosopher like Bergson and Alexander, but a paleontologist and Catholic priest. This dual vocation led him to a lifelong endeavor to reconcile the claims of biology and Christianity in an all-embracing evolutionary synthesis. He accepted evolution as a fundamental fact, while differing from Darwinism by claiming that everything in the universe has dual aspects, the inner psychic and the external material. Accordingly, there is an evolution of consciousness going on simultaneously with physical evolution. The entire universe, from elementary particles to man, is governed by a “law of complexification” that carries it in the direction of greater complexity and increasing consciousness. Like Bergson, he saw a special nonmechanical agency at work in evolution, which he called “radial energy.” It is an internal psychic force that intensifies with the development of more complex forms. Radial energy causes things to become more integrated, both “within” and “without,” being responsible for the major transitions from matter to life and mind. When a physical system becomes more highly organized, its psychic interior will be more fully developed. Man is the most recent form to appear in the evolutionary progression of nature. His capacity for self-conscious thought and the formation of cultures has added a new layer to the earth’s ambiance — the “noosphere,” or layer of reflective thought. The noosphere is a unique environment that sets man apart from other creatures, characterizing the “phenomenon of man.” Through the noosphere, all human societies are projected to unite in a single world culture.

Teilhard believed that evolution converges toward a point called “Omega” where it reaches its final goal. The “Omega Point” is a mystical concept, but it is not wholly unworldly, since the physical and the psychic aspects of the universe are inseparable. Omega is the focal point of their convergence, corresponding to God in so far as it determines the direction of cosmic evolution. The process is orthogenetic, though not in a finalistic sense, because Teilhard makes some allowance for chance events. The culmination will be reached when all individuals unite in a single community through love. He invests his vision with religious significance by identifying it as the “Divine Milieu,” during which the spirit of the “Cosmic Christ” becomes fully manifested in the universe. In this way, he hoped to unite his personal religious convictions with science. Teilhard’s interpretation of evolution — a view he hoped to ground in science — fails to connect with mainstream scientific practice, which knows nothing of a psychic interior of physical matter. Ideas like “radial energy” and the “Omega Point” seem to be more fiction than science. They may have been intended to support his belief that the scientific view of evolution was not in conflict with Catholic theology. On the religious side, however, there was some uneasiness about Teilhard’s emphasis upon God as the end (Omega) of cosmic history rather than its initiator (Alpha). His ideas also conflicted with theological dogmas regarding the fall of man and original sin. As a consequence, they were not widely accepted in orthodox Catholic circles. Teilhard’s vision of an evolving universe remains purely speculative without having much support from either science or theology. But his optimistic faith in the future progress of humanity is praiseworthy and still has many avid adherents.

The work of Jean Gebser, particularly in The Ever-Present Origin, goes even farther than Teilhard in stressing the emergence of a new type of consciousness on earth.9\ According to Gebser, humanity advances culturally through successive stages, or “mutations,” toward an arational and aperspectival integral consciousness. This is not conceived as a linear progression in which later stages replace earlier ones. Instead, the successive stages are cumulative, representing comprehensive integrations of all that preceded them. The various mutations through which humanity passes are regarded as partial manifestations of a single “ever-present origin.”

Gebser was concerned with a detailed examination of the different structures of consciousness rather than with cosmology per se. He supported his thesis by a wealth of etymological, literary, and artistic evidence. Although his book displays remarkable originality and penetrative insight, it is only tangential to our present concern with cosmology. To recapitulate: the heart of cosmology is a distinctive mode of awareness identified by Sri Aurobindo as cosmic consciousness, which permeates all four faces of the universe."



Aurobindo's Theory of Spiritual Evolution

Ulrich Mohrhoff :

An outline of Sri Aurobindo’s theory of spiritual evolution is presented. Ultimate Reality relates to each world (ours need not be the only one) as the substance that constitutes it, as a consciousness that contains it, and as an infinite joy that expresses and experiences itself in it. In our world, Ultimate Reality is “playing Houdini,” enchaining itself as best it can, challenging itself to escape from self-created darkness and inertia, to rediscover its true self and powers, to affirm itself in conditions that appear to be its very opposite. Sri Aurobindo calls the process by which these conditions are created “involution.” Once we have a sufficient grasp of this process, we are in a position to understand the true nature of evolution, which is not finished: man is a transitional being, his greatness lies not in what he is, but in what he makes possible.

Evolution, according to Sri Aurobindo, “is the one eternal dynamic law and hidden process of the earth-nature” (EDH 246):

- The keyword of the earth’s riddle is the gradual evolution of a hidden illimitable consciousness and power out of the seemingly inert yet furiously driven force of insensible Nature. Earth-life is one self-chosen habitation of a great Divinity and his aeonic will is to change it from a blind prison into his splendid mansion and high heaven-reaching temple. (EDH 161)

The blind prison is the final outcome of a process Sri Aurobindo calls “involution,” and the purpose of involution is to set the stage for the drama of evolution: “The involution of a superconscient Spirit in inconscient Matter is the secret cause of this visible and apparent world.” (EDH 161)

That evolution happens is obvious. Once “the facts supporting it are marshalled, this aspect of the terrestrial existence becomes so striking as to appear indisputable” (LD2 868); “we can no longer suppose that God or some Demiurge has manufactured each genus and species ready-made in body and in consciousness and left the matter there, having looked upon his work and seen that it was good” (LD 738). But how evolution happens is a quite different question. It ought to be superfluous to point this out, but in certain quarters the ability to distinguish between the fact of evolution and its process seems to have been lost.

A theory of spiritual evolution is not identical with a scientific theory of form-evolution and physical life-evolution; it must stand on its own inherent justification: it may accept the scientific account of physical evolution as a support or an element, but the support is not indispensable. The scientific theory is concerned only with the outward and visible machinery and process, with the detail of Nature’s execution, with the physical development of things in Matter and the law of development of Life and Mind in Matter; its account of the process may have to be considerably changed or may be dropped altogether in the light of new discovery, but that will not affect the self-evident fact of a spiritual evolution, an evolution of Consciousness, a progression of the soul’s manifestation in material existence. (LD 868).


"The evolutionary process: .. There is an ultimate reality. This relates to the world as the substance that constitutes it, as a consciousness that contains it, and as an infinite bliss that expresses and experiences itself in it. By adopting a multitude of viewpoints within the content of its consciousness, Sachchidananda takes on the aspect of a multitude of situated selves and thereby engenders both to the world’s spatial aspect and the subject-object dichotomy. By an exclusive concentration in each self, consciousness — originally supramental — becomes mental. By deepening this exclusive concentration, consciousness becomes implicit in its own executive force. By carrying the exclusive concentration to its furthest extreme, the executive force, which serves to create and maintain objective forms, becomes implicit in a multitude of entities, which are not only unconscious but also formless. This, in brief, is the process of involution, which takes us from Sachchidananda to the so-called “ultimate constituents” of matter.12 And it is obviously a psychological process. Therefore the process of evolution, too, is essentially psychological.

[T]he creation of forms of Matter, first of inconscient and inanimate, then of living and thinking Matter, the appearance of more and more organised bodies adapted to express a greater power of consciousness, has been studied from the physical side, the side of form-building, by Science; but very little light has been shed on the inner side, the side of consciousness, and what little has been observed is rather of its physical basis and instrumentation than of the progressive operations of Consciousness in its own nature. (LD 736)

[L]ife, mind, supermind are present in the atom, are at work there, but invisible, occult, latent in a subconscious or apparently unconscious action of the Energy; there is an informing Spirit, but the outer force and figure of being, what we might call the formal or form existence as distinguished from the immanent or secretly governing consciousness, is lost in the physical action, is so absorbed into it as to be fixed in a stereotyped self-oblivion unaware of what it is and what it is doing. The electron and atom are in this view eternal somnambulists. . .

In the plant this outer form-consciousness is still in the state of sleep, but a sleep

full of nervous dreams, always on the point of waking, but never waking. Life has appeared; in other words, force of concealed conscious being has been so much intensified, has raised itself to such a height of power as to develop or become capable of a new principle of action, that which we see as vitality, life-force. It has become vitally responsive to existence, though not mentally aware, and has put forth a new grade of activities of a higher and subtler value than any purely physical action. . .

The transition to the mind and sense that appear in the animal being, that which we call conscious life, is operated in the same manner. The force of being is so much intensified, rises to such a height as to admit or develop a new principle of existence,— apparently new at least in the world of Matter,— mentality. Animal being is mentally aware of existence, its own and others, puts forth a higher and subtler grade of activities, receives a wider range of contacts, mental, vital, physical, from forms other than its own, takes up the physical and vital existence and turns all it can get from them into sense values and vital-mind values. It senses body, it senses life, but it senses also mind; for it has not only blind nervous reactions, but conscious sensations, memories, impulses, volitions, emotions, mental associations, the stuff of feeling and thought and will. It has even a practical intelligence, founded on memory, association, stimulating need, observation, a power of device; it is capable of cunning, strategy, planning; it can invent, adapt to some extent its inventions, meet in this or that detail the demand of new circumstance. All is not in it a half-conscious instinct; the animal prepares human intelligence. (LD 739–741)

[T]he appearance of human mind and body on the earth marks a crucial step, a decisive change in the course and process of the evolution; it is not merely a continuation of the old lines. Up till this advent of a developed thinking mind in Matter evolution had been effected, not by the self-aware aspiration, intention, will or seeking of the living being, but subconsciously or subliminally by the automatic operation of Nature. This was so because the evolution began from the In conscience and the secret Consciousness had not emerged sufficiently from it to operate through the self-aware participating individual will of its living creature. But in man the necessary change has been made,— the being has become awake and aware of himself; there has been made manifest in Mind its will to develop, to grow in knowledge, to deepen the inner and widen the outer existence, to increase the capacities of the nature. Man has seen that there can be a higher status of consciousness than his own; the evolutionary oestrus is there in his parts of mind and life, the aspiration to exceed himself is delivered and articulate within him: he has become conscious of a soul, discovered the self and spirit. In him, then, the substitution of a conscious for a subconscious evolution has become conceivable and practicable, and it may well be concluded that the aspiration, the urge, the persistent endeavour in him is a sure sign of Nature’s will for a higher way of fulfilment, the emergence of a greater status.

In the previous stages of the evolution Nature’s first care and effort had to be directed towards a change in the physical organisation, for only so could there be a change of consciousness; this was a necessity imposed by the insufficiency of the force of consciousness already in formation to effect a change in the body. But in man a reversal is possible, indeed inevitable; for it is through his consciousness, through its transmutation and no longer through a new bodily organism as a first instrumentation that the evolution can and must be effected. In the inner reality of things a change of consciousness was always the major fact, the evolution has always had a spiritual significance and the physical change was only instrumental; but this relation was concealed by the first abnormal balance of the two factors, the body of the external In conscience outweighing and obscuring in importance the spiritual element, the conscious being. But once the balance has been righted, it is no longer the change of body that must precede the change of consciousness; the consciousness itself by its mutation will necessitate and operate whatever mutation is needed for the body. (LD 875–876) Evolution is the reverse of involution, but only in this particular sense: “what is an ultimate and last derivation in the involution is the first to appear in the evolution; what was original and primal in the involution is in the evolution the last and supreme emergence.” (LD 885–886) Particles do not turn back into conscious individuals; they aggregate, and it is aggregates of particles that form living organism. The inconscient substrate is not abolished but used. Because of its resistance, its darkness and inertia, evolution is the difficult and protracted adventure it was meant to be.

This movement of evolution, of a progressive self-manifestation of the Spirit in a material universe, has to make its account at every step with the fact of the involution of consciousness and force in the form and activity of material substance."


More information

* Book: Robert M. Kleinman. The Four Faces of the Universe: An Integrated View of the Cosmos. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 2006 excerpts