An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: May 2019
The evolution of matter, life and mind
NB. This chapter may not be fully understandable if one has not read first the preceding chapter on concepts of consciousness.
In the previous chapter, we had a look at three different concepts of consciousness and explained why we choose for the integral concept which holds that consciousness is not something that only humans have, but a dynamic aspect of absolutely everything in existence. One area where the integral understanding of consciousness offers a more satisfactory explanation of reality than the mainstream physicalist concept is the evolution of our own species. While many people still accept Darwin's mechanistic explanation of evolution in terms of chance mutations and survival of the fittest, when it is used as an explanatory framework for psychology and the social sciences, something crucial is clearly missing. It is as if one discusses a temple or cathedral only in terms of its structural stability and the functioning of its sewer system, or as if one studies a painting by Leonardo da Vinci only in terms of the physical properties of the paint he used. However interesting such things may be by themselves, they are not commensurate to the nature of the subject1 and given the role science plays in modern society, this is not a small, innocent mistake.
Interestingly, one can find in some of the most ancient Indian scriptures, variants of Darwin's theory that don't suffer from the one-sidedness of Darwin's account. It is true that these old stories are far less detailed than Darwin's, but they are remarkably comprehensive in their scope: they deal not only with biological structures and outer behaviour, they include consciousness; they deal not only with matter life and mind, but discuss what happened before matter came into being; and — most interesting of all — they stretch out far into the future.
In the first chapter of his main philosophical work, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo looks at evolution from the consciousness-centred perspective that we find in the Indian tradition, and then wonders whether the biological evolution of which Darwin had found his indications in nature, is not actually a gradual manifestation of more and more sophisticated forms of consciousness.
Seen from this perspective, the evolution begins with the deeply involved, seemingly unconscious state of inorganic matter, develops in that physical environment the half-consciousness of plant and animal life, and then gradually develops within certain animals the beginnings of the mental consciousness which we now see evolving further in humanity. We'll begin this chapter with a closer look at the evolutionary origin of our species. After that, we'll explore what light the meta-narrative of an ongoing evolution of consciousness can shed on more recent human history and what is happening with humanity at present. In the third section we'll have a look at some ancient Indian ideas on where this awe-inspiring universe might actually have come from, and see whether this gives us some guidance on where the evolution is heading.
Evolution as far as it has reached till now
At first sight, it seems pretty obvious that everything around us is physical. And yet, if we look more carefully, it is also clear that plants, animals and humans have something extra, something that is not just physical, or at least something that does not fit in the ordinary meaning of the word "physical". What is that extra? As we will see, we get quite a neat picture of the whole of reality when we assume that till now there have been three basic principles: Matter, Life, and Mind. Though it may not be possible to define the borders between these three basic modes of being with an absolute precision, they differ from each other in their essential quality. We will now have a look at these essential qualities and see how they have expressed themselves in the different stages of the biological evolution till now.2
Inanimate material entities are relatively simple; they are just what they are, entirely ruled by the laws of physics, conservation of energy and momentum, and trending towards increasing entropy. In the Vedic terminology, we could say that inorganic matter is ruled by the guna (essential quality) of tamas, inertia. As such, inanimate things are engaged in the continuation of what they are and what they do, and they provide stability to all that follows. Linguistically, the consciousness in matter expresses itself in terms of "I am what I am, and I do what I do." It manifests as the habit of form and function: the electron knows how to be an electron; the rock how to be a rock; the river how to river; the ocean how to ocean. Their type of consciousness is obviously not the type of mental awareness that we humans have, but still, in the Vedantic view of reality it is their consciousness that makes them what they are and that determines how they function.
We should not underestimate the consciousness in things. From our human level, the consciousness in simple physical entities may look like nothing and we may think that these things are unconscious or at best subconscious, but that doesn't do justice to the marvel of physical reality. The reason to think that there might be more to it, is that physical things never make mistakes, which means that in a strange, inverted way, even the smallest fundamental particles must "know" far more than we normally give them credit for.
In fact, because purely physical things act exactly according to the laws of physics, they must know, in however implicit a manner, every aspect of the laws of nature that pertains to them. And that is not all: physical things must also be aware of everything that exerts any kind of physical power over them. In short, even the tiniest physical part of this world must know everything that has any relevance to its existence.
Of course fundamental particles and other simple physical objects do not know their stuff in the kind of explicit — but also limited and imperfect — manner we humans know things. The way of knowing in physical things comes perhaps closer to the kind of implicit knowledge we humans have embedded in our innate biological functions and in our learned physical skills, but still, it is a kind of knowing, and it is both all-inclusive and perfect.
Many mystics have felt this intuitively, and they have taken it as a sign of the Divine's omnipresence. The aspect of the Divine that is perhaps most clearly present in animate nature, is then perhaps, besides its obvious intelligence and ingenuity of design, a very special kind of impersonal, abstract beauty and harmony.
With Life something radically new enters into the picture. The physical structures supporting life are much more complex than anything in the inanimate world. In terms of design, even microscopic unicellular organisms are more complex than the sun. But the difference is not just a matter of compact complexity. When life appears, its dominant guna is rajas, energy, self-assertion, possession, adventure and drama. Linguistically, the living organism is a centre of dynamic interactions whose relations are expressed "horizontally" in terms of "I and Thou".
There are many things that are pretty special about the way life manifests on our planet. One is that living beings are capable of physically rebuilding their own extremely complex form and function out of much simpler inorganic material. According to science, the exact manner in which plants and animals build their own complex structures out of the utterly simple elements that they find in their environment, is dictated by their genes. This means that the unique character of a living entity physically exists twice. It exists not only in their outer structure and functioning; it also exists symbolically as a special kind of plan or design for their unique way of being in the form of the long strings of digital information that are contained in their genes. Both are physical, but there is a big difference between them. The first is is the real, living thing itself. It can easily and comfortably adjust the way it manifest, and so every specimen is different according to its circumstances. The second is a hyper-compact symbolic description — or rather prescription — which is relatively stable in the sense that it is identical in all the cells of the living thing and near-identical in all the members of a species, but, and this is the fascinating part, between generations, permanent changes can be made in the design at near-zero cost in terms of energy. In other words, the dual nature of this arrangement allows the additional freedom Life introduces to show at two different levels. On the one hand, within the life of each individual living entity, the complexity of living creatures allows for a whole new level of dynamic and creative adaptation and interaction with similar and different lifeforms. On the other hand, genetic procreation with its mixing of male and female strands of information, enables fast and almost energy free minor adjustments as well as major evolutionary changes between generations.
One of the most fascinating aspects of physically embodied Life is, that while the consciousness of each living entity is still as fully embedded in its physical substrate as in much simpler inanimate objects, Life as the expression of a type of consciousness and principle of action introduces a beginning of freedom to interact and play that is not present in inanimate nature. It is as if Life obeys the letter of the law that determines the physical reality, but overrides its tamasic spirit and basic character. A rock will forever remain a rock or at most, slowly over thousands or even millions of years pulverize into dust. A plant builds itself up in a matter of hours or at most years, using ingredients from air, water and soil according to its own unique character and circumstances; when it perishes, equally fast, it rebuilds another quite different specimen of the same basic type. In inorganic nature, there really is nothing as complex, playful, and richly interactive.3
As with matter, we should not underestimate the miraculous nature of the emergence of Life. As Sri Aurobindo points out, if some outside intelligence would have looked at the inanimate, physical world before life came into being, it would never have been able to predict, on the basis of what it had seen, what would happen with the arrival of life. How do you jump from the utter simplicity of rocks, water and air, to flowers, trees, butterflies, birds of paradise, or much more amazing, to the love of mothers for their children? For indeed with the arrival of life, not only more complex forms appear but also feelings and attitudes. While the beauty in inanimate matter may feel impersonal, rule bound, mathematical, or, occasionally, majestic or severe, the beauty in living nature feels warm, full, embracing, and in a strange, almost shy, initial manner, personal. Flowers are sweet and touching in their innocent self-giving and aspiration for the light; a tree is someone to reckon with. Is this an anthropomorphic attribution error? Or are we denying something true, when we hold nature to be "just physical"? Is it wrong to recognise an abundance of love in the generosity of a mango tree?
The progression of miracles does not end here. With the arrival of Mind, we see again not only another dramatic increase in terms of complexity, but also another and entirely new functionality. The physical structure of the nervous system is many orders of magnitude more complex than that of plants and in fact more complex than anything else we know to exist. But in terms of consciousness, it is not only more complex but also essentially different from what came before it in trees and small flowering plants.
The trees and flowers are, as we have seen, far more complex and one could say more individualised than the rock: they are active, responsive, interactive, capable of expanding and rebuilding their own type; yet in the end they are still, like the rock, only themselves. But in the working brains of animals, this is not any longer the case. With the help of its complex physical structure, the nervous system does something that we find normal because we are so used to it, but that is actually radically new.
While pre-mental life is capable of physically recreating its own complex structures, embodied mind is capable of turning a bit of its own physical stuff into a hyper-complex model of the world in which it lives. And then, just as the tree is living within the structure of the tree it has built, we, mental beings, are living within the brain-based models we have built.
This new gift of making models of reality is far more remarkable than may be obvious at first sight. We don't know much about how animals experience the world and themselves, but we humans live only rarely and to a very limited extent directly in our bodies or even in our feelings. We live largely within this parallel, "virtual" reality of our own making. To be more precise, our consciousness, our self, our puruṣa, still identifies with one little portion of the material world, prakṛti, just as it does in the plant and the rock, but the bit of matter with which the thinking creature identifies itself is no longer simply itself as it is in the pebble and the tree: it is a nervous system busy modelling itself and the rest of the world.
In terms of the gunas, the mind is supposed to be sattvic, and, ideally, its nature should be truthful and harmonious. In practice, however, our human mind is hardly capable of truth; it is rather a first attempt at explicit knowledge within the conditions of a living, physical nervous system. Moreover, in animals, the mind is fully in service of the life-force which pursues survival and self-assertion rather than truth. And even in us humans, our attempts at knowing tend to suffer from atavistic immixtures that continue to rise up from the physical and vital stages of our biological evolution.
Modelling self and world
Three stages in the evolution of the model-making faculty
It is useful to distinguish three different stages in the model making activity of the nervous system. The first stage provides the capacity to create simple maps, models and images of reality which can be combined into a plan for action. This is what enables animals to move around in the world and one can see a fairly advanced stage of it at work when one watches a dog or a cat move — in a clearly determined manner — to a place where it knows that food, water, good company, or anything else it fancies may be available.
The next stage becomes possible when the "model-making" has not only become more complex, detailed, and reliable as a predictor of how real-life action will work out, but also faster. Since making a plan in one's mind is inherently far safer than trying things out in the real world, this enables animals to make a set of parallel plans from which the best one can be chosen for execution. With this, the first beginnings of something like our human mind come into existence, for it establishes the nervous system — or should we say the owner of the nervous system — as an, at least somewhat independent centre for taking decisions, choices, action, and with that as a centre for viewpoints, opinions and so on.4
The third stage is for us humans by far the most interesting. It arrives when the model-making becomes self-reflexive and we learn to adjust our models to reflect and express different viewpoints and attitudes. Given that we tend to identify with (parts of) our models, this makes it possible to change what we consider to be ourselves, and we will take it up in the next section which deals with the post-biological stage of the evolution of consciousness.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the way the human nervous system is modelling the world is the degree to which it is transparent to itself. Just as we don't see the structures inside our own eyes, so we are ordinarily not aware of our own model-making activity. Most people are convinced that our senses help us to look directly and "objectively" at an independently existing outside reality, but this is true only in a very partial, and somewhat metaphorical sense. The way consciousness and matter are related to each other is easiest to understand when we assume that in our ordinary waking state, our nervous system is simply aware of itself. Almost all that we are normally directly aware of is our own internal, brain-based representation of the world. The result of this is that when we feel that both we and the world are real, this is at best a half-truth, since the "we" and the "world" as we know them, exist only as components of our own, artificially created model. The models we make are fabulously complex and even beautiful in their own way, but in the end, they are never more than descriptions, they are copies. The intrinsically perfect direct knowledge which everything in this world has of its own existence, gives the models we make an aura of authenticity, but the actual content of these models is derivative and of our own making. We can become directly aware of who we are, and even of others and the world around us, only if we first silence our model-making mind, which is one of the main reasons why silencing the mind plays such a central role in yoga. 5
The last aspect of the mind I want to mention in this section is its dualism. The strength and pervasiveness of this dualism is another rather remarkable characteristics of the human mind. In our ordinary waking state, there is always a split between the knower and the known, and between the self and the world. The dualism is there even implicitly in each individual knowledge statement, because each mental assertion denies its opposite. Mental dualism is so natural to us, that it is hardly ever doubted or questioned, but it is one of the main causes of human suffering and the endless conflicts that mar our human existence. Though our mind is through and through dualistic, there is no reason to think of dualism as an intrinsic or inevitable aspect either of the world or of awareness. The dualism simply belongs to mind, just as self-assertiveness is part of life.
Once we accept that consciousness is pervasive throughout the physical universe, we need no longer look at our own human consciousness as a kind of incomprehensible freak phenomenon in an otherwise purely mechanical universe. It becomes clear that consciousness is rather something that has gradually evolved together with the biological structures that support and manifest it. If we look at the biological evolution as an evolution of consciousness, a new depth and deeper meaning gets added to the incredible beauty and harmony of the natural world, as well as to the immense complexity of our own human nature. As we will see later, looking at the evolution as an ongoing emancipation of consciousness shows us not only where our human consciousness must have come from, but also where it must be heading. Before we get to that, however, we first need to have a more detailed look at where we have reached till now and what humanity is presently busy with from an evolutionary standpoint. This is what we will take up in the next section.
1. Darwin, who was a good observer not only of nature but also of himself, laments later in life that "he has become like colour-blind" because, as he says, he has concentrated too much on mechanical explanations and neglected poetry.
3. Those with an interest in the history of ideas might wonder whether this way of talking about "Life" is not an attempt at reintroducing "vitalism". In some sense it probably is, but that is no reason to conclude that it is wrong. Sri Aurobindo uses the word "vital" for the life-energy, but he does not mean by it a physical substance or energy whose existence can be proven or disproven by a physical or chemical experiment. He takes it as a type of consciousness, and from his standpoint, the entire debate about "vitalism" was vitiated by misunderstandings about the nature of consciousness and its relation to matter. When physicalist researchers could not show the existence of "élan vital", that did not disprove Sri Aurobindo's theory; on the contrary, it showed he was right to think that life was something extra that could not be reduced to purely physical stuff and energy. That people like Julian Huxley thought élan vital had no meaning because it was not physical, was absurd, because if that had been true, then meaning (which is also not physical) would itself have been meaningless. The futility of the materialist's objections against "life" and "vitalism" can perhaps be illustrated most easily with the manmade things we introduced at the beginning of this chapter: if one studies, for example, the construction of a cathedral with the research methods that physicalist-reductionist science has at its disposal, one will find only material things and energies. No problem with that and no surprise: the cathedral is no doubt a physical object. And yet, without belief in God, ideas, plans, community support, land-owners, architects, engineers, contractors, craftsmen and labourers, nothing would have been built. To claim that all those things (and all those people!) were only physical misses the whole point of the cathedral's existence (and of those human lives). True, the cathedral is physical, but it is not only physical. To refuse to admit this betrays a common but still rather stunning example of voluntary blindness. A more detailed discussion of this issue can be found in the previous chapter, "Concepts of consciousness" and in the appendix on Classical Behaviourism.
4. It is probably because of this, that in the Samkhya philosophy the ego-sense (ahankara) is always mentioned together with the sense-mind and the intellect (manas and buddhi).