May 15 2012

Evolution of Consciousness – By Way of an Introduction (Part I)

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The phrase “evolution of consciousness” is used quite heavily in some of the circles I travel in. The general idea being that not only is consciousness “evolving,” but is either undergoing, or on the verge of undergoing significant change on a possibly global scale.

This is a concept that I have wrestled with for quite some time.

For a while, I chucked off the idea to wishful thinking. The idea that there is a lot going on in the world that is unpleasant (to say the least), and the hope that we can create a better way of living that is not only sustainable and as harm-reductive as possible, but also honors that which makes us human. There is a lot of talk about an impending “paradigm shift” and assorted other things that may cause a next evolutionary step in our consciousness. I hear talk of everything from 2012, to “Indigo Children” to all sorts of things that indicate that the next stage is at hand.

But is it?

I would be lying if I said I had a definitive answer beyond “I don’t know.”

For a while, this agnosticism tended towards a kind of atheism (to continue an analogy), in that if I simply couldn’t see the evidence, then this evolution of consciousness must simply be the wishful thinking I’d dismissed it as. People have been waiting for this sort of change for a long time, and some of these narratives go back thousands of years.

Recently, however, I’ve had cause to re-think my position a little bit. I’ve asked myself, “Can consciousness evolve?” And perhaps this is a better question for me to work with, because it allows me to focus on the issue at hand, rather than get caught up in specific trappings of which narrative of the “impending shift” resonates the strongest with me.

What made me revisit this question is a book I’m currently reading: Gary Lachman’s A Secret History of Consciousness. I will be posting a review of Lachman’s book when I finish it. At one point in the book, Lachman summarizes a question posed by Henri Bergson (and others) thusly:

“If the ‘aim’ of life is to successfully ‘adapt’ to its environment, why did it ever go beyond the amoeba, which is practically immortal and has proved the successful adapter par excellence? Why has life gone on not only to adapt, which implies an essentially passive, reactive character, but to complicate itself more and more dangerously? An Einstein or a Beethoven is a far greater risk than a colony of single-cell eukaryotes floating in a warm, primeval soup. And why, if the brain is solely an ‘organ of attention to life,’ does it seem to possess a surplus of psychic energy and a multiplicity of states, far beyond the needs of simply dealing with the vicissitudes of a hazardous environment?…A machine only has as much energy as I put into it; when my car runs out of gasoline, it doesn’t suddenly discover a fresh tank hidden away somewhere. Yet we all know
from our own experience that there are moments in our lives when we seem able to call upon energies and resources we were hitherto unaware of…[f]rom a strictly ‘adaptive’ point of view, this is inexplicable”

(Lachman, 2003, pp. 24-25).
So, for Lachman (and others), it would seem that the evolution of consciousness is not merely Darwinian (though I suspect it would be entirely fair to talk in terms of Darwinian timescales).

Is it a teleological evolution, however? Might it be something closer to Lamarck? Next week, I’ll post a little bit on those ideas, and how they might apply to an evolution of consciousness.

In the meantime, some thoughts to ponder: if consciousness is evolving, (and let’s entertain the idea, and say that it is), would we know? Is there a point where consciousness can become so aware of itself, that it can recognize change? I would say yes – to a degree – As I grow older, I recognize that I have changed over the years. Having recently gone through a life altering experience, I can say that I was attuned to the deconstruction and reconstruction of my identity as it happened… but who or what is the “I” that observed these things? (Ever that question! And did it change?) Would we be able to recognize an evolutionary shift/change in consciousness on a mass-scale? Is this faculty part of an evolutionary change?

Next time: Teleological evolution, Lamarck, and a discussion of “indicators” commonly used to support the notion of consciousness evolving.

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