An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: May 2019

section 1
the evolution of matter into life and mind

Introduction

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 think that Darwin's mechanistic explanation of evolution in terms of chance mutations and survival of the fittest works well for biology, as an explanatory framework for psychology and the social sciences, it is clearly not "fit for purpose". 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 subject and the role science plays in modern society.1

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. For those who are interested, here is the story as told in the Mundaka Upanishad.

In the first chapter of his main philosophical work, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo looks at Darwin's theory of evolution from the consciousness-centred perspective that we find in the story of the Mundaka, and then wonders whether the biological evolution of which Darwin had found his indications in nature, is not actually a gradual manifestation 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 this stretch of our history because it belongs to a part of reality that is comparatively easy to study and understand. But after that, once we have a better grip on how we developed from inanimate matter to our present state, we'll try to get some insight in what might have happened before the evolution began, where this awe-inspiring universe might actually have come from. And then, at the end of the chapter, we'll see whether all of this together gives us some idea what our future might be.

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 in plants, animals and humans, something has been added to the physical reality 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, and, interestingly, they represent three clearly distinct stages in the biological evolution.2

Matter

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, as with us, 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 perhaps, besides it obvious intelligence and ingenuity of design, a very special kind of impersonal, abstract Beauty.

Life

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".

Living beings are capable of physically rebuilding their own extremely complex form and function out of much simpler inorganic material. They also assert themselves dynamically and playfully in their interactions with the world around them. 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 cannot change its basic design — that is fixed in its genes — but 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, [REF] if some outside intelligence would have looked at the inanimate, physical world before life came into being, he would never have been able to predict, on the basis of what he 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?

Mind

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 utterly stunning.

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 is way 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 the rest of the world.

And this modelling of the world is a rather amazing business.

One intriguing aspect of our world-modelling activity is the degree to which it is transparent to us. Just as we don't see the structures inside our own eyes, so we tacitly assume that we are aware of the world, while what we are actually aware of is only the model we made in our own nervous system. While most of us are convinced that our senses help us to look directly and "objectively" at an independently existing outside reality, this is only very partly true. The reason for doubt is, that in the ordinary mental consciousness, all that we are directly aware of is our own internal, brain-based model of whatever it is that exists out there. And while there must be some hidden, implicit knowledge of the world deep inside our our body, just as there was in the electron, for us that inner knowing is completely overshadowed by the explicit, constructed knowledge that our model-making surface mentality throws up. And this artificial surface knowledge, even at its very best, is never more than an approximation of reality and the hidden, immediate, and intrinsically perfect knowledge which everything in this world has — or rather is — deep inside itself.4

Another remarkable characteristic of our ordinary mental consciousness is the strength and pervasiveness of its dualism. In the ordinary human mind, there is always a split between the knower and the known and between the self and the world. It is there even implicitly in each individual knowledge statement, because each mental assertion denies its opposite. Mental dualism is so natural to us at present that it is hardly ever doubted or questioned, but 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 the world of the human mind, just as self-assertiveness is part of the world of life. Sri Aurobindo describes the difficulties with dualist thinking (and several other imperfections of the mind) as atavisms, dysfunctional left-overs from our evolutionary past. They have their origin mainly in the insularity of the body and the self-assertiveness of the life force which by sheer habit intrude and corrupt our mental consciousness.

There are two ways to free ourselves from this dualism: the first is to go down in the hierarchy and identify with the physical body which, after all, simply is; the second way is to go up, and step out of our identification with any part of manifest nature and become pure consciousness. Interestingly — and I would say, fortunately — this is quite possible for humans: we have the potential to enter into a deep inner silence, which goes together with a surprising intensity of delight and clarity of consciousness. Once there we can then allow an occasional thought to cross our mind, or we can let the silence become absolute.5. The only hitch is, that to maintain this state of pure consciousness requires that there is no egoic identification with any part of the body, life and mind, and this is for most of us difficult to achieve. At present even its possibility is hardly ever mentioned within academic discourse, but as we will see, a systematic development of this cognitive skill could help psychology to take a large step forward towards more reliable and precise psychological knowledge.

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 pure and perfect knowledge; it is rather a first attempt at explicit knowledge within the conditions of a living, physical nervous system, and as such it still suffers from the atavistic immixtures that continue to rise up from the physical and vital stages of our biological evolution. We will have a closer look at all this in the chapters on the different types of knowledge and the ways we can improve them. [INTERNAL LINKS]

Towards a greater freedom

The defects and limitations of our constructed knowledge do not make it useless, however. In fact, it is almost impossible to exaggerate how much the mind has added to the world. One of the biggest things the mind has added, in spite of all its imperfections, is a further degree of freedom, and this freedom expresses itself in three clearly distinct areas.

The first is in the realm of outward action. The ability to create images, allows something which simpler, non-intelligent life-forms cannot do. It makes it possible even for very simple animals to dream up a series of scenes so that, together, they form a plan for action. One sees this for example when one watches an animal go — in a clearly determined manner — to a place where they know from memory that food, water or just "good company" may be available. A further degree of this freedom appears when more intelligent creatures can imagine a variety of different plans which they can then compare and weigh against each other. It is not by chance that this ability to plan and choose between different actions, goes together with the ability to move around, handle and discuss things.

And this bring us to the second area where our mind has given us a new freedom. The embodiment of mind went together with a few other by now seamlessly integrated and highly sophisticated anatomical changes. Think of our hands which are perfectly crafted for holding things, from rocks to eggs, from a tree's branch to a baby's finger, or our cleverly designed ears and sound-analysing equipment. All of these have a stunning degree of perfection and they not only allow us to communicate with each other and make an endlessly varied number of tools and gadgets, but all these extra skills together are producing something that could perhaps best be described as a post-biological evolution. Since we learned to codify our understanding in symbols that could be shared effectively with others, our mutual sharing of knowledge has gone into a dizzying spin. The result is that the individual can now, with hardly any effort, gain from and contribute to a collective knowledge base which, because of all this sharing, is growing at an ever-increasing speed.

We don’t really know how this started. It may have begun with a painting on a rock, the oral exchange of small bits of personal interest, but at some stage it began to include commercial and organisational stuff, stories, poems and sacred texts that, once created could be learnt by heart and shared with others. But then something incredible happened: we landed ourselves in a dizzying spiral of developing, sharing and increasing our collective store of knowledge with an ever-increasing speed. Well over 30,000 years ago we began to sketch. Roughly 5000 years back we learned how to write. Some 500 years back we mastered cheap and fast printing. Less than 200 years ago we figured out how to send Morse code by wire. Less than 40 years later this was followed by telephone. Wireless radio and TV came soon after, and the speed by which we now store, process and share information digitally is increasing so fast that … we’ve actually no clue where all this will lead to. The only thing that is certain is that everything is changing faster and faster.

These new mental abilities have not only increased the intelligent creature's range of options for individual and collective action, but they have also made other types of more fundamental change happen faster and easier. It took pre-mental Nature aeons to create a new type of bird or produce a butterfly with a new pattern of colours on its wings. We humans can now produce a new design within seconds, whether in our minds or on our computers.

These are not a small or insignificant developments. The embodied mind, in spite of all its defects, has turned the animals in which it manifests into a kind of secondary, miniature co-actors and co-creators. Where first it was only the universe as a whole that existed, acted and grew, in this mental stage of the earth's evolution, we see in our little corner of the universe the appearance of brainy creatures who function like small centres of semi-individualised action in which consciousness is emancipated to a degree where there seems at least to exist a certain freedom, a possibility of choice and responsibility.

But this is not all. There is a third, even more radically new degree of freedom provided by the model-making capacity of the mind. It is not remotely as well-developed as the first two, but in due time, it may well turn out to be even more game-changing. The ease of making and sharing alternative models gives the individual model-making consciousness not only more freedom and mastery over outer action, but also over its own model-making process. And here the story becomes really fascinating. In the outer, physical realm, the new freedom created by the model-making faculty of the mind can only be used to detail out, juxtapose and compare different plans and share these with others, but in the third realm, the new ability to change one's viewpoint at will can lead to something even more significant, something that has the potential to help humanity to finally overcome "the indignity of mortal life" (Sav, p. 313).

This new ability manifests when we learn to apply our perspective-shifting capacity to ourselves, or to be more precise, when we use it to change how we look at things and with that, to where we place the border between what we experience as self and what we see as world. Once more, it is hard to exaggerate how radical a change this can bring about. When the type of our consciousness and the borders of our self come under conscious control, a whole new faculty arises that, if we develop it far enough, allows us to overcome the basic atavisms that at present hamper our mental capacities and tendencies. With this, a whole new degree of freedom arises: not only freedom from outer circumstances but even freedom from our own inner drives and preferences. This detachment from and mastery over our own mental processes opens up entirely new vistas for research in the psychological domain and for types of individual and social change and development we now can hardly dream of. We'll come back to this faculty in the second section of this chapter. In many ways, it is the development of this third mental freedom that forms the central theme of the new approach to psychology we describe in this book.

Before we get there, however, we need to have first a closer look at what the Indian tradition has to say about what happened before the physical universe came into being. The reason this is worth paying attention to is that the evolution appears to move in the opposite direction of the preceding involution, which means that looking at our past might offer an interesting perspective on what we may encounter in our future.

Endnotes

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.[REF + exact text]

2.   If the idea of different types of consciousness looks strange to you, you might like to read first the chapter on concepts of consciousness.

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.   We will come back to the fundamental difference between constructed and direct knowledge in the first chapter on knowledge.

5.   Having "thoughts crossing one's mind" is a surprisingly fit description of this state: The impression one has is that one watches a vast silent sea in which a thought appears like a small sailing boat on the horizon, only to disappear a little later without leaving a trail.

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