An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: in process

section 1
matter, life and mind


In the first chapter of his main philosophical work, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo outlines the theoretical foundation for all his further work: the idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo suggests that the biological evolution of which Darwin had found his indications in nature, may not be just a story of increasing complexity, but rather a progressive manifestation of consciousness. In this view, 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 in humanity. Sri Aurobindo then argues that it appears unlikely that our present, clearly half-baked and seriously limited mental consciousness would be the final end-product of such a huge cosmic endeavour.

Looking at the world in this way provides a single unified framework that works not only for physics but also for psychology and the social sciences. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of such a shared framework. The reason it is needed is simple: the physicalist philosophy that dominates mainstream science at present has worked only for the hard sciences. It has stood squarely in the way of the development of psychology, the social sciences and the humanities. Within those disciplines, the consciousness-centred, evolutionary framework is not only helpful because it provides a more inclusive understanding of the whole of reality in which we humans find ourselves, but also because of what it can do in three specific areas: it can lead to rigorous methods for research in the subjective domain; it can help in the development of useful theory and know-how for applied fields like individual development, education, counselling, therapy and social development; and finally it can provide a natural, science-based foundation for human values. Together this is not a small area...

There are many things that can stand in the way of such a consciousness-centred understanding of evolution and reality in general. One of them is that many people, especially in the West, see consciousness only as the way we humans are aware of our surrounding, and then think of consciousness as something that exists inside our heads and is dependent on a working brain. This conceptualisation of consciousness is good enough for all kind of practical purposes, for example, in a hospital's emergency room when one tries to assess as fast as possible the likelihood of brain damage after an accident, but for psychology this view is about as useful as the flat-earth theory was for astronomy.

Physics could not arrive at a coherent understanding of the physical reality as long as it believed that the sun, planets, stars and galaxies all circled around the spot where we humans happen to live. It had to accept that our earth is just one amongst several other planets that move around the Sun, and that the Sun, which plays such a huge role in our human lives, is just one amongst billions of other stars in a corner of just one amongst billions of galaxies.1 Similarly, psychology will never be able to create a satisfactory explanation of our human state, as long as we believe that our human way of being conscious is the one and only way. To develop a comprehensive, effective and incisive understanding of the world and our role in it, we have to accept that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of the whole of reality and that our human way of being conscious is just one amongst many other ways of being conscious. It may be insulting to the inflated sense we humans have of our own importance, but just as we had to accept that we live in what appears to be an arbitrary suburb of the universe, we must also accept that our way of being conscious is just one amongst many.

Fortunately if we want to find out how the evolution of consciousness has worked till now and where it might be heading in the future, we don't need to start from scratch. While the West has worked out the physical side of the story, the Indian tradition has focussed for thousands of years on the study of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo made use of this, and found fascinating answers to our two questions on the evolution of consciousness by super-imposing the basic structure of Darwin's biological evolution onto the much larger canvas of an ancient Indian conception of consciousness. To better understand how his synthesis of humanity's complementary efforts at understanding reality works out, we'll first have a closer look, from Sri Aurobindo's consciousness-centred perspective, at that stretch of the evolution with which we are already familiar: how we came from the first inanimate structures of physical matter to our present mental state. Later, in the second section of this chapter, we'll offer some speculations on how the evolution might have started, and in the third we'll discuss where it might be headed. But now first, a fresh look at that part of reality we already know.

Evolution as far as it has reached till now

It seems, at least at first sight, pretty obvious that everything around us is physical. And yet, if we look more carefully, it also seems clear that in plants, animals and humans, something has been added that is not just physical. It appears as if during the long process of evolution there have been periods of transition during which something radically new began to manifest. While in terms of physical complexity the evolution shows a continuum, when we look at the evolution from the perspective of consciousness, it becomes clear that there are three clearly distinct stages — inanimate Matter, Life and Mind. Though it may not be possible to define the borders between them with an absolute precision, these three stages seem to differ from each other not just in degree, but in their essential quality, so we'll now have a look at these three different ways of being conscious.


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, they are engaged in the continuation of what they are and what they do, providing 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.

As we have seen earlier, [LINK] we should not underestimate the consciousness in things. From our human level, the consciousness in simple physical entities may look like almost nothing and we may think that these things are unconscious or at best sub-conscious, 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 particle must "know" absolutely everything.

Purely physical things act exactly according to the laws of physics. And as all the laws of physics are supposed to hang together, this means that physical things must know, in however implicit a manner, all the laws. And that is not all: physical things must also be aware of everything that exerts any kind of physical power on them. In short, even the tiniest physical part of this world must know everything that has any relevance to their 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. Perhaps one could even argue that these simplest of things know themselves in the way God knows himself, but as we'll see later, there is more to it, and that is where things become really interesting.


As if all this is not enough, with Life something radically new enters into the picture.2 The physical structures supporting life are much more complex than anything in the inanimate world. In terms of design, even a microscopic unicellular organism is 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", with all the complications such relations entail.

Living beings are not only dynamic and playfully asserting themselves in their interactions with the world around them, but they are also capable of physically rebuilding their own extremely complex form and function out of much simpler inorganic material. The exact manner in which plants and other living creatures build their own complex structures out of the utterly simple elements that they find in their environment is dictated by their genes. In other words, the unique character of living entities physically exists twice. It 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. It also exists in its outer structure and functioning. Both are physical, but one is just a hyper-compact symbolic "description" — or rather "prescription" — the other the real thing. Interestingly, the dual nature of this arrangement allows not only a much higher level of complexity, but also an increasing freedom and creativity at two distinct levels. On the one hand, genetic procreation, and especially the mixing of male and female strands of information, enables fast and occasionally drastic evolutionary change. On the other hand, within the life of each individual living entity, the complexity of living creatures allows for a whole new level of dynamic and creative action. One of the most fascinating aspects of this 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 was not present in inanimate nature. It is as if Life obeys the letter of the law that determines the physical reality, but cheerfully ignores and overrides the tamasic spirit and basic character of matter. 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 mater of hours, or at most years, out of the far simpler ingredients from air, water and soil according to its own unique character and circumstances; then it perishes; and then it rebuilds another quite different specimen of the same basic type. There really is nothing remotely like it in inorganic nature.

As with matter, we should not underestimate the miraculous nature of the emergence of life. Sri Aurobindo points out [REF] that 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 near amorphous appearance of rocks, water and air, to flowers? Mango trees? Butterflies? Birds of paradise?


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, entirely new functionality. The physical structure supporting the mind, the nervous system, is many orders of magnitude more complex than plants and in fact 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, and yet, in the end, they are still, like the rock, only themselves. But in animals with a working brain, 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 into physically recreating its own complex structures, embodied mind is into turning a bit of physical stuff into a hyper-complex copy or model of the world in which the thinking organism lives. And then, just as the tree is fully engaged in being the tree, we mental beings are fully engrossed in being our brain-based model of the world around us.

There is much that is remarkable about this new gift. 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 in the pebble and the tree: it is a nervous system busy modelling the rest of the world. And this has amazing consequences.

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 we are actually aware only of the model made by our own nervous system. Related to this, we tend to believe blindly in what our model-making actions produce. "Most of us most of the time" are convinced that our senses help us to look directly and "objectively" at an independently existing outside reality while this is only very partially true, because in the ordinary mental consciousness, all that we are fully, explicitly aware of is our own internal, brain-based model of whatever it is that is out there. And while there must be some hidden, implicit knowledge of the world deep inside our model, just as there was in the electron, 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, can never be more than an approximation of the hidden, immediate, and intrinsically perfect knowledge which everything in this world has — or rather is deep inside itself.

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. This dualism is so natural to us at present that it is hardly ever doubted or questioned, but there is no reason to think of it as an intrinsic or inevitable part of either the world or of knowledge. It is quite possible for humans to be conscious — or perhaps I should rather say, to consciously be — without any separation, whether between self and world, or in between different elements of the world, and to "know" whatever is to be known at that moment as one uninterrupted whole without any thought crossing one's mind.3

Sri Aurobindo describes the defects of 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 the mental consciousness. In terms of the gunas, the mind is supposed to be sattvic, and, ideally, its nature is truthful and harmonious, but as of now, our human mind is not 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. [INTERNAL LINKS]

The defects and limitations of our constructed knowledge do not make it useless. In fact, it is almost impossible to exaggerate how much it has added to life. 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 two are in the realm of 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 they form, together, a plan for action. 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 and "handle" things.

This does not only infinitely increases the intelligent creature's range of options for individual action, but it also makes other types of change happen infinitely faster and easier. It took Nature aeons took to create a new type of bird or to produce a butterfly with a new pattern of colours on its wings, while we humans can now produce within seconds a new design "in our minds" (or, perhaps rather, 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 in our little corner of the universe. Where first it was only the universe as a whole that was existing, acting and growing, in this mental stage of the earth's evolution, we see the appearance of small centres of semi-individualised action in which consciousness has emancipated to a degree where there seems at least to exist a certain freedom, a possibility of choice and responsibility.

The third radically new degree of freedom provided by the model-making capacity of the mind is not as fully developed as the previous two, but in the end it may well turn out to be even more game-changing. The gradually increasing ease of making alternative models gives the individual model-making consciousness even some freedom with regard to its own model-making process. And here the story becomes really fascinating. In the beginning, the model-making faculty of the mind can only be used to detail out different aspects of one single plan, or to juxtapose and compare different plans. But gradually, this ability to change one's viewpoint at will can lead to something far more significant.

This is when we learn to apply our perspective-shifting capacity to ourselves, or to be more precise, to 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. 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. With that, a whole new level of freedom arises not only from outer circumstances but even from our own inner drives and preferences, and with that new vistas open up for psychological knowledge and for types of individual and social change and development that we now can hardly dream of. We'll come back to this faculty in the third and last sector of this chapter and in much greater detail in several later chapters of this book, like those on cognition and self-development. In many ways, it is the development of this third freedom that forms the central theme of the new approach to psychology we discuss in this book. [INTERNAL LINKS]

Before we get there, however, it is useful to have first a closer look at what the Indian tradition has to say about the origin of the physical universe. As we'll see, Sri Aurobindo's consciousness-centred interpretation of the early Indian texts offers a revolutionary perspective on what our future may hold.


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