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Conscious Evolution

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Peter Robertson

The debate, such that it is, between creationists and evolutionists regarding the legitimacy of their contrasting theories of the origins of man juxtaposes two alternative worldviews that have exerted a strong influence on Western civilization.  Creationists derive their beliefs from the Bible, the foundational text for the Christian religion that served as the primary ideology underlying the development of Western culture in the pre-modern era.  Evolutionists derive their beliefs from a body of theory and evidence accumulated over the last couple of centuries and synthesized into the scientific perspective that has served as the primary ideology underlying the development of global culture in the modern era.  It is ironic that a conflict between the modern and pre-modern worldviews is still at play in American society while the world moves inexorably into a new post-modern era that will ultimately demonstrate the limitations of both religious and scientific ideologies.

The basic storyline in the evolutionist theory is that life first emerged in the oceans of a young Earth, and evolved over billions of years from a simple single-cell life form into the remarkable complexity that is a human being.  This process of evolution is believed to have taken place largely as a result of random mutations, i.e., an error in the genetic code of an organism that results in some feature that improves its capacity to survive in its particular environment.  This “survival of the fittest” mechanism allows beneficial mutations to be passed on to future generations, increasing the likelihood that the improved features get spread throughout the species.  Over countless generations, major changes in species have occurred, to the point that the path of evolution has branched off in many distinct directions.

Across the billions of years of evolution of life on this planet, one of the most fascinating aspects of this process has been the emergence of human consciousness.  The evolutionist perspective assumes that consciousness is produced by the brain, implying that organisms without a brain are not conscious and that the evolution of more complex brains gave rise to more complex qualities of consciousness.  The human brain is so complex that there is much that remains poorly understood about how it functions and gives rise to the various features of human consciousness. Moreover, given the sophistication of the brain and the remarkable features of consciousness, the evolutionists’ premise that these are simply the result of an aggregation of random errors seems almost inconceivable.

Willis Harman, in his book Global Mind Change, discusses different ways of conceptualizing the relationship between mind and matter, distinguishing between what he calls M1, M2, and M3 metaphysics.  The M1 metaphysic is “material monism,” the perspective that matter gives rise to mind, i.e., consciousness is produced by the brain, in contrast to the M2 metaphysic “dualism,” which assumes that mind and matter are separate and distinct phenomena.  A dualistic perspective took hold as the modern era was emerging, based on Descartes’ conclusion – reflected in his famous dictum “I think therefore I am” – that he could be more certain about the reality of his own thinking self than about the reality of the material world.  In light of modern scientific understanding of human physiology, however, the materialistic belief that mind is merely an “epiphenomenon” of the neurological activity in our brain has taken hold and now dominates modern society.  Once a brain has stopped functioning, it is presumed that there can be no more conscious activity.

The shift from an M2 to an M1 metaphysic over the last two centuries corresponds to what can be thought of as the “desacralization” of the world resulting from the diffusion of modernity’s secular, rational, empirical worldview.  This mechanistic worldview perceives the universe as a giant machine, without any intrinsic value or inherent feeling.  Moreover, the dominant cosmology it offers to explain our origins and destiny is essentially a nihilistic story devoid of any meaning, vision, or purpose.  This refers not just to the evolutionists’ cynical notion that our existence is nothing but a highly improbable outcome of a series of genetic mistakes made since the emergence of life.  The primary scientific explanation of the origins and development of the universe also contribute to the conclusion that Earth with its incredible planetary ecosystem is an intriguing but ultimately insignificant occurrence resulting rather deterministically from “natural forces” that reflect no design or intention.  While adherents of this worldview seem to pride themselves on the premise that their cosmology is based on facts rather than faith, the truth is that three separate acts of “magic” are embedded in this supposedly scientific story.

First, the notion of the “big bang” reflects the premise that the universe began when, all of a sudden, everything came into existence out of nothing, with no explanation of how this happened or where it all came from.  Second, the story of the evolution of life on this planet reflects the initial premise that inorganic material – the primordial soup – spontaneously gave rise to organic entities, with no explanation of how non-living matter can, all on its own, suddenly become alive.  Third, this perspective assumes that consciousness emerged along with increasingly sophisticated nervous systems and brains, with no explanation of how organic matter develops a capacity for cognition and information processing.  These three claims – that the whole universe magically emerged out of nothing, that organic life magically emerged out of inorganic chemicals, and that mind magically emerged out of matter – require no less faith, and are no less fantastical, than the belief that God created the world in six days.

Science and Religion portrayed in this Tiffany window "Education"

Science and Religion portrayed in this Tiffany window “Education”

In short, the modern era gave rise to a scientific worldview that overtook religion as the dominant ideology in Western culture, and in so doing changed the story we tell about our own existence, away from one in which life had purpose and the human drama had meaning to one in which life is an accident of arbitrary forces and the human drama is just an extemporaneous act we are making up as we go along.  While people tend to take science as “fact,” it is important to recognize that this scientific ideology about the nature of reality is also, like religion, based on a set of assumptions and assertions that one must accept on faith.  With its exclusive focus on the material world, often to the point of denying the reality of non-material or spiritual phenomena, “scientism” has contributed to the development of a late-modern culture oriented around a meaningless materialism that results in a number of dysfunctional patterns causing significant problems for humanity.

Previous Counterpoint columns have addressed some of these problems by considering how modern culture has given rise to institutional arrangements that are generating collective behavior patterns that run counter to the presumed goal of a peaceful and prosperous society.

  • The modern economy is driven by a growth imperative that motivates rapid depletion of the planet’s natural resources while failing to recognize that environmental constraints constitute real limits to growth.
  • Modern politics have been subverted by a partisan process in which conflicts over secondary issues are used to distract people from the fact that both parties are working in the interests of the rich and powerful.
  • Government effectiveness is undermined by an irrational attachment to the rational organizational model of the modern bureaucracy that is increasingly anachronistic in today’s complex, dynamic, and uncertain world.
  • The modern monetary and banking system has created a global economy fueled by growing levels of debt, with the financial elite manipulating the system to accumulate massive amounts of wealth while leaving billions of people in poverty.
  • The war on terrorism is the product of the false-flag 9/11 attack that served to justify wars throughout the Middle East in order to secure access to oil and gas resources that would enable continued American hegemony in that region and the world more generally.
  • The growing militarization and demonstrated violence of a police force that historically has repressed poor people in order to protect the interests of the wealthy suggest that the government is preparing to respond to a significant uprising on the part of the America people.

These discussions reflect the postmodern perspective that common behavior patterns in a given culture reflect the core values embedded in its institutions and the underlying beliefs constituting its worldview.  The new ideas and ways of thinking articulated in early modern philosophy gave rise to new economic, political, financial, governmental, and organizational institutions.  Now that global society is transitioning out of the modern era, the limitations of these modern institutions in terms of their capacity to address contemporary challenges are increasingly obvious.

The premise that humanity is moving into a new phase of civilization should not be surprising or even controversial.  The arrival of the Information Age surely means that we are leaving the industrial era behind, and the development of new technologies now and in the near future promises to have radical implications in terms of human capabilities and possibilities.  What is less obvious is that our collective understanding of the nature of reality is changing as well, giving rise to a new worldview that will eventually come to replace the modern scientific perspective on the evolution of the universe.  The emergence of this new worldview coincides with a shift in the level of humanity’s collective consciousness, which in turn suggests that the evolution of consciousness is an important feature of the story being told through the unfolding of the universe.

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton

Ironically, the foundations for the emergent worldview that will help guide humanity into the next stage of civilization as a global society have been provided by the results of considerable scientific research, starting with the findings of quantum physics a century ago.  Once technological capabilities enabled physicists to explore the atomic realm with more precision and rigor, they started ascertaining a number of unusual features of subatomic phenomena that ran counter to the view of the world established through what is now referred to as “classical” physics, based on the seminal work of Isaac Newton.  One significant realization, for example, is summed up in the famous equation E=MC2, which states that matter and energy are essentially equivalent, that matter is simply embodied energy.  Rather than viewing the universe as a huge empty space populated by innumerable physical objects, quantum physics describes a universe filled with energy that manifests in physical form.  Even the empty space is comprised of energy, i.e., the “vacuum” or unified field that constitutes the ground of all that exists.

Whereas classical physics focused on separate and distinct material objects and the energetic forces that create their dynamic properties, quantum physics recognizes that matter and energy are not clearly distinguishable and that everything is inherently interconnected.  Over the course of the 20th century, this core idea diffused throughout the natural sciences, as researchers internalized the realization that a good understanding of whatever was the focus of their study had to include some knowledge about how it was connected to the world around it.  In contrast to the reductionist tendencies of modern science, which led researchers to decompose the subject of their study into component parts to be analyzed separately, the new emphasis on interconnectedness stimulated more research into the nature of systems as wholes consisting of interacting parts.  One result was the development of the new interdisciplinary field of complexity science, which focuses on the study of complex systems, i.e., those with many interdependent components tied together through a complicated set of interactions characterized by positive and negative feedback loops.

The influence of quantum physics and an emphasis on interconnections can be seen in the social sciences as well, for example, with the emergence of an “open systems” perspective in the 1960s that highlighted the important relationship between a given social system and its broader environment.  More recently, network theory and analysis has become a popular approach for studying social systems, taking as the basic unit of analysis a relationship between two network components and examining features of the relationships in a given network to better understand the nature of the system as a whole.  The field of system dynamics has contributed to efforts to model complex social systems in an attempt to better understand how best to intervene in order to guide or change the system.  In a subtle but rather pervasive way, our science-based worldview is shifting to focus more on whole systems and the complex interdependencies that determine their dynamics.

Holographic Earth

This holistic perspective has yielded some interesting conclusions about the nature of mind and matter and the relationship between the two.  One of the more intriguing ideas is outlined in Michael Talbot’s fascinating book The Holographic Universe.  Talbot explains how quantum physicist David Bohm and neuroscientist Karl Pribram had independently come to the conclusion that the physical universe and the brain/mind, respectively, demonstrated fundamental properties similar to those of a hologram, the key feature of which is that each “part” contains the whole.  By integrating the theories developed by these two renowned scientists, Talbot suggests that the universe itself could be a giant hologram, quite literally a kind of image or construct created at least in part by the human mind.  The quantum reality he describes is a dynamic, energetic universe that actually responds to our thoughts and feelings.

Another way to say this is that mind and matter interact and interpenetrate at the quantum level, both intimately interconnected with the underlying unified energy field.  In her book, The Field, that synthesizes leading-edge scientific evidence in support of this idea, Lynn McTaggart summarizes the findings as follows:  “On our most fundamental level, living beings, including human beings, were packets of quantum energy constantly exchanging information with this inexhaustible energy sea…Thinking, feeling – every higher cognitive function – had to do with quantum information pulsing simultaneously through our brains and body.  Human perception occurred because of interactions between the subatomic particles of our brains and the quantum energy sea.  We literally resonated with our world.”  In short, consciousness is not separate and distinct from the material world, and in fact plays an important role in actually creating our reality.


The influence of mind on matter is further seen in scientific findings that have given rise to the study of “epigenetics.”  In contrast to the conventional view that the genes inherited from our parents determine our traits and characters and remain fixed throughout our lives, research on epigenetics demonstrates that our genes are actually affected by our perceptions, including our reactions to the world around us.  For example, a person born with healthy genes can, through epigenetic processes, express mutant behaviors such as cancer.  Similarly, a person born with defective mutant genes can, through epigenetic mechanisms, create normal healthy proteins and functions.  As Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief, points out, “The conclusions of the ‘new’ biology provide a radical departure from our conventional beliefs of how life works. In contrast to the notion that we are biochemical automatons driven by genes, the new insights reveal that it is the mind that controls genes, which in turn shape our biology and behaviour.”  Lipton argues that the world of epigenetics – and the “paradigm-shattering” notion that we can actively control our genetic expression moment by moment throughout our lives – has shaken the foundations of biology and medicine.

Another innovative perspective on the link between mind, matter, and energy is discussed in Charles Seife’s book Decoding the Universe.  Seife presents an “information science” view of the universe, explaining how science is reinvestigating the fundamentals of physics from the standpoint of information theory.  This perspective holds that the entire cosmos can be likened to a computer, with everything that happens reflecting the information processing activity taking place in the quantum realm.  He points out that the field of thermodynamics, which describes the behaviors of mass and energy, has essentially become a special case of information theory, with information itself becoming a quantifiable and concrete property of mass and energy.  A key conclusion from this perspective is that all living things can be understood as incredibly complex information-processing machines.  Moreover, the validity of this approach is supported by findings that the same rules of information underlying the behavior of modern computers not only dictate how our minds and bodies function but also determine the behavior of galactic-scale phenomena like black holes.

Water branch

The idea that the cosmos is, in essence, an information processing system suggests that the ability to “think” does not necessarily result from the development of brains but instead may be inherent to the quantum energy field.  And this in turn leads to the rather radical possibility that consciousness is not a by-product of the interactivity of brain cells but instead that the universe itself is conscious!  This is the premise set forth by Christian de Quincey in his book Radical Nature, which provides a philosophical explanation and justification of the idea that consciousness is inherent in all that is, a property of the field itself and thus of everything that has manifested in material form.  As de Quincey puts it, “Matter itself tingles with the spark of spirit.”  Of course, this is not a new idea, as he traces the notion of “intrinsically sentient matter” back to the earliest days of Western philosophy and shows that it has survived in an unbroken chain across the centuries.  De Quincey notes, in fact, that the idea of “dead matter” as found in today’s scientific materialism is actually an aberration in the history of Western thought.  In contrast, he argues, the cosmos is “a magnificent creation brimming with spirit and consciousness.”

The perspective that consciousness is intrinsic to matter, and that the quantum realm is a vast and incredibly sophisticated information processing system, is the key starting point for a new cosmology to replace the competing stories of the pre-modern and modern eras.  In Harman’s terms, this perspective represents an M3 metaphysic, what he calls “transcendental monism” or the idea that mind gives rise to matter.  In other words, this revisioning of reality posits that “consciousness is causal,” that the universe is a conscious energy field unfolding and evolving in a way that suggests a direction and a purpose.  One version of this story is developed by Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek in The Living Energy Universe, which argues that everything, at all levels of existence, is alive, remembers, and evolves.   Compared to the modern scientific cosmology, with its unanswered questions about how inorganic material became organic and how consciousness emerged out of matter, this theory is more parsimonious in the sense that these questions are no longer relevant when it is assumed that life and consciousness have been present from the very beginning.

In contrast to the desacralized worldview generated by modern science, this new cosmology is helping to restore a sense of the sacred to nature and to our lives by enabling us to view the cosmos as intrinsically meaningful, purposeful, and valuable.  By viewing the universe as a conscious entity that is evolving in the form of “life” on at least this one little planet, it is easy and reasonable to deduce that a primary purpose of this process is the evolution of consciousness itself.  The idea that consciousness can evolve is certainly not new or unusual.  The study of human development confirms our own personal experience that consciousness develops in people as they grow from infants through childhood into adults – this development follows a typical pattern that results in people becoming more “conscious” as they develop a broader frame of reference with which to comprehend the world.  Likewise, it is easy to accept the notion that collective consciousness, i.e., culture, evolves across generations – beliefs and values that were once acceptable (e.g., slavery) become intolerable over time, and generational differences (e.g., baby boomers vs. millennials) reflect different mindsets produced by different formative experiences and opportunities.

It would also seem that consciousness can evolve as a result of more proactive or intentional efforts.  Educators and change agents frequently utilize “consciousness-raising” activities to help others gain a deeper understanding of the nature of their circumstances, as a way of empowering them to make the kinds of changes that could improve the quality of their lives.  Throughout the ages, people have pursued various spiritual practices intended to help enlighten them, and spiritual masters often display qualities of “higher consciousness” that appear to transcend the capabilities of most human beings.  Today, different people seem to be operating at different levels of consciousness, and the “spiral dynamics” framework developed by Clare Graves and elaborated by Don Beck and Chris Cowan provides a useful approach for characterizing these different levels and the different worldviews and ways of thinking associated with each. In short, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that consciousness develops, expands, and gains capabilities, with this process unfolding at both the individual and collective levels.  Moreover, higher or expanded consciousness is typically associated with greater awareness, deeper insight, wiser decisions, and better people.

The new cosmology simply suggests that these various versions of consciousness evolving all reflect the underlying truth that this evolutionary process is inherent to the universe.  In simple terms, the evolution of life on Earth resulted in greater physical complexity that enabled or embodied more sophisticated capabilities of consciousness, with homo sapiens sapiens now demonstrating a capacity for reflective self-consciousness that seems to be unique among the life forms on this planet.   With the advent of civilization, consciousness has been evolving collectively as well, demonstrating signs of expanding in ways that have enabled major advances and transformations in human society.  Duane Elgin provides an insightful analysis of this process in his book Awakening Earth.

Aeonium_tabuliformeElgin argues that the different phases of human civilization have been stimulated by qualitative shifts in consciousness.  The transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life to one organized around agriculture and animal domestication, and then from an agrarian society to the scientific-industrial era, both reflected steps in the process of “awakening” that involved human beings separating themselves from nature, developing a sense of autonomy as a species, and discovering their capacity to influence and even change their environment.  In short, these prior phases of civilization have seen the emergence of the quality of self-consciousness that dominates society today.  It can be characterized as “separative consciousness” in the sense that our experience of life reinforces the assumption that every person is separate and distinct from everything else, an autonomous entity with self-interests and free will that enable if not encourage it to pursue its own selfish agenda.  This focus on the self, with its natural rights and freedoms, was the hallmark of the Enlightenment philosophy that laid the foundation for the modern era, and it is reasonable to conclude that the collapse of modernity is being facilitated by the fact that selfish, greedy behavior has been institutionalized as legitimate, appropriate, and – according to economic theory – beneficial for society as a whole.

According to Elgin, the phase of civilization we are now moving into is the “era of reconciliation” in which we begin to recognize our inherent interconnectedness and interdependence.  This transition will require us to reintegrate ourselves with nature, explore our deep bonds with one another, and develop our capacity to act in harmony with the world around us.  Based on this shift in collective consciousness, humanity can start to transform society in ways that reflect these new modes of thinking and feeling, stimulated by the growing awareness that future prospects for life on Earth will require us to stop acting as though only the “self” (individual, organization, nation-state) matters and instead to take the “good of the whole” into account more explicitly and consciously.  This new era is significant in that it marks the beginning of the development of “unitive consciousness,” which will ultimately result in human beings having the capacity to experience themselves as individual entities while simultaneously being aware of their connection to all that is.  Elgin predicts additional future stages of human civilization through which this ongoing evolution of consciousness will take place.

It is understandably difficult to imagine a world operating at a higher level of consciousness that enables humanity to overcome its tendency to divide into separate groups and engage in competitive struggles with others.  It may seem reasonable to be skeptical of the possibility of any kind of transformational change in global society that would look anything like an era of reconciliation.  At best, this potential likely seems viable only in the distant future, assuming that any such evolution is happening too slowly to matter much to us today.  However, there are reasons to believe that major cultural changes will become apparent much sooner than can be easily anticipated.

A Hindu monk is walking during sunrise in a mango garden Dinajpur, BangladeshTo begin with, it is important to recognize that we are already 100 years into the transition process, which can be thought of as starting with the first glimpses into the quantum world that shook the foundations of classical physics.  The first broadly overt signs of a shift in collective consciousness came in the 1960s, when young people protested “the establishment” and its ill-conceived Vietnam War, and the civil rights, women’s liberation, and environmental movements all challenged existing societal institutions and norms.  The New Age movement of the 1990s reflected another surge of consciousness-raising activity, as large numbers of people started exploring a variety of spiritual practices, alternative healing modalities, and other self-help approaches intended to clear negative energy, raise their vibration, and enable them to function more effectively.  The net effect is that, over the last half century, innumerable individuals have been “waking up” or shifting to a higher consciousness that gives them a fresh perspective on the world, the problems we face, and viable solutions to those problems.

On top of this, the newest “Millennial” generation was born and raised in a world with the internet, and given their widespread adoption and ubiquitous use of contemporary social media, it is fair to say that theirs is an inherently connected culture.  Moreover, they’ve come of age in a world filled with pervasive news about the war on terror, economic crises, and environmental deterioration, all dramatically reflecting the inability of contemporary institutions to handle the complex challenges of global society.  As a result, many of them have a strong desire to help make the world a better place, reflecting a higher level of consciousness that leads them to feel a sense of responsibility for our collective well-being.  As the Millennials move into positions of greater power and influence over the next generation, and their connected culture continues to mature and diffuse, we should not be surprised if the net effect is to stimulate and facilitate the development of humanity’s capacity for collective consciousness.

While slow, steady evolution towards unitive consciousness can therefore be expected, it is also possible that a more rapid, discontinuous shift will result in some sort of evolutionary leap that quickly thrusts humanity into a new phase of civilization.  The basis for this conjecture comes from complexity science, the foundations of which are explained in Mitchell Waldrop’s book Complexity.   Research has determined that complex systems, under certain circumstances, demonstrate the capacity to undergo spontaneous systemic reconfigurations of their structures and processes.  Complex systems operate in a dynamic equilibrium, meaning that their activities tend to be fluid and variable but within a restricted range that allows the system to maintain stability.  Sometimes, however, the circumstances a system encounters create “far-from-equilibrium” conditions that leave it vulnerable to reaching a “bifurcation point” where the system either collapses or reconfigures itself so as to be able to manage more effectively the increased complexity causing the disequilibrium.

This pattern in which complex systems function for quite a while in a state of dynamic equilibrium and then undergo brief periods of rapid transformation has been labeled a “punctuated equilibrium” model of change.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that the evolution of life on this planet has reflected this punctuated equilibrium model, with long periods of relative stasis in which species change very little for millions of years, interrupted by relatively short periods characterized by a rapid burst of change that results in a new species.  Research has indicated that social systems such as groups, organizations, scientific fields, and even the policy process can also reflect a punctuated equilibrium change process, leaving open the possibility that systemic transformations can sometimes take place quite quickly.  More generally, as explained by Harold Morowitz in The Emergence of Everything, the entire history of the cosmos reflects a pattern of continuity punctuated by “emergences” in which more complex systems with new features emerge out of the interactions of their less complex component parts.

MSH80_eruption_mount_st_helens_05-18-80As the process of globalization over the last few decades has created a more interconnected and interdependent world, the many wicked problems society faces are generating chaotic, far-from-equilibrium conditions that are pushing humanity towards a bifurcation point that will ultimately – and maybe sooner than we expect – result in either systemic collapse or a significant cultural transformation.  The possibility that the collapse has already begun is suggested by evidence indicating that the planet is now in the midst of its sixth “mass extinction” event in which a large number of species disappear from the planet in a geological blink of an eye.  While the proximal causes of the previous mass extinctions are not known with any certainty, it is clear that human activity is playing a significant role in causing the current disappearance of numerous life forms.

If there is a silver lining in the cloud of an impending collapse, it is that more and more people are becoming more and more aware of the problems we face and realizing that existing structures and processes are incapable of addressing the chaotic conditions created by the new complexities of our emergent Information Age society.  In other words, individual and collective consciousness is expanding, intuitively recognizing the truth of the dictum, apocryphally attributed to Albert Einstein, that “problems can’t be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.”  As these Counterpoint columns have tried to explain, many of the challenges confronting global society are the consequence of continued faith in modern thinking and reliance on modern institutions despite the fact that we now live in a post-modern world entering a new age.  Based on growing recognition of the dysfunctionality of our dominant political and economic institutions and the elite agenda they serve, many people have adopted a new worldview and associated values that provide a foundation for the emergence of a new culture.   In short, a window of opportunity is opening for a radical revisioning of the future of the planet.

The shift to a higher level of collective consciousness is reflected in the fact that the human race has now reached the point where we can choose the path of our future evolution.  Up to this point, our physical and cultural evolution has occurred through processes that were not subject to human control.  However, technological advances in areas such as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics are well on their way to redefining the limits of human potential, leading towards a “transhumanist” society in which people will have much more choice about their physical, cognitive, and emotional capabilities.  The ongoing development and diffusion of information/communication technologies already enable widespread participation and collaboration that, as more and more tools become available, will transform systems of governance to allow for more inclusive, deliberative processes that result in more innovative and integrative decisions.

In her book Conscious Evolution, Barbara Marx Hubbard describes the transformational process humanity is in the midst of, pointing out that “our crisis is a birth” in the sense that, just as necessity is the mother of invention, the need to resolve the major issues confronting society are generating innovative ways of thinking and doing that can help us respond to these critical concerns.  Hubbard stresses that human beings have reached a stage of evolution where we are now “co-creators” of our world, with the capacity to choose and create the circumstances we live in rather than simply being subject to uncontrollable forces of nature.  Acknowledging that we are already co-creating the world means that we bear responsibility for making wise decisions about how best to move forward from here.  This means discontinuing those activities that are contributing to systemic collapse and focusing instead on establishing new structures and processes through which we can address more effectively our most pressing problems.

Our capacity to make good decisions that will create a sustainable pattern of development to insure our continued evolution will be enhanced by the shift in consciousness associated with this transition.  In particular, one of the “skills” associated with the higher consciousness of the emergent era is what can be called collective reflection.  While the defining feature of human consciousness is the capacity for self-reflection, the ability for similar reflection at the collective level, i.e., among groups of people, has not yet been adequately developed.  This has not mattered much historically, since most governance systems have been centralized with single decision-makers in charge.  However, with the emergence of the democratic ethos in the modern era, and the premise that people have a right to participate in their government, all governing bodies could benefit greatly from being able to reflect collectively on the systemic benefits and costs of the decisions they are making.

Birds flocking, an example of self-organization in biology

The popularity of the notion of “organizational learning” in the 1990s reflected widespread interest in developing the ability of organizations as entities to become better learners so as to be more innovative and adaptive.  Organizational learning requires that people who work together need to reflect together on their successes and failures, their strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities and challenges they face, etc.  The processes required for this kind of collective reflection were not designed into the Weberian bureaucratic organizational model, nor do they tend to arise spontaneously in the course of natural human interaction.  Peter Senge has greatly contributed to the effort to identify ways for organizations to develop their learning capacity, with his book The Fifth Discipline and his founding of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT (now the Society for Organizational Learning).

Moving forward, these skills and tools will need to be utilized in support of collective learning in all governance systems tasked with making decisions relevant to the public good.

In addition to enhancing our capacity for collective reflection, the shift in consciousness giving rise to this cultural transformation will likely have other consequences as well.  One type of change that should become apparent is an increase in various “psi phenomena,” as more and more people start to demonstrate what might be called “fifth dimensional” consciousness.  Psi phenomena include such parapsychological activities as telepathy, perception at a distance and through time, psychokinesis, and precognitive dreams.  In The Conscious Universe, Dean Radin describes findings from rigorous scientific research that supports the premise that these phenomena are real, displayed often enough under controlled conditions that they need to be taken seriously.  While these “psychic” activities should not be possible given what is generally believed about the nature of consciousness, i.e., that it is derived from brain activity, psi events are quite viable given a quantum, holographic understanding of the nature of reality.  In fact, evidence of the reality of psi can be taken as empirical support for the theory that mind and matter interpenetrate in the unified field of energy that is our universe.

The idea that the capability to experience psi phenomena is associated with fifth dimensional consciousness reflects the fact that the universe at the quantum level does not seem to be constrained by the four dimensions of space-time that seem to define our material reality.  In the physical universe, the fixed speed of light serves as an upper limit to how quickly anything can travel between two points.  However, quantum physics has established the reality of what are called nonlocal connections, in which “entangled” quantum particles remain inherently connected despite being separated by considerable distance; because these connections enable instantaneous information transfer, i.e., faster than the speed of light, Einstein referred to them as “spooky action at a distance.”  Whereas the limits of our normal four-dimensional awareness preclude tapping into the possibilities inherent in the non-local nature of the mind-matter matrix, a shift to higher, fifth-dimensional consciousness enables one to transcend the apparent limits of time and space and the supposed boundary between mind and matter.

Another way to discuss this difference between levels of consciousness is by distinguishing between ego and soul, between the “self” that is the persona or identity adopted during physical life on Earth and the “higher Self” that, according to spiritual traditions, is the “breath of life” or “spark of the divine” that is an immortal being in an afterlife that begins once physical death occurs.  Gary Zukav, in The Seat of the Soul, refers to the former as our “personality,” which is essentially a limited-consciousness version of the multisensory human beings we really are.  Whereas the personality is limited to the input of the five senses and the cognitive facilities associated with normal waking consciousness, multisensory perception entails the ability to “see” more than the five senses can detect, i.e., awareness from the soul level.  Zukav describes the soul as “that part of you that existed before you were born and that will exist after you die. It is that part of you that longs for harmony, cooperation, sharing and reverence for life.”

Human intuition and insight might be thought of as reflecting a “communication channel” through which the soul aims to transmit information and ideas to the ego/personality that are useful given present circumstances.  According to Mona Lisa Schultz in Awakening Intuition, intuition is not a magical or mystical talent limited to a few sensitive people but instead is a real capacity that everyone possesses, as natural as our five senses.   She sees intuition as grounded in the mind-body network that uses various clues – physical symptoms, dreams and visions, body sensations, emotional reactions, memories, etc. – to convey information about one’s health and well-being.  She offers guidance for honing receptivity to these signals so as to make decisions and take actions that improve the quality of one’s life.  Likewise, in Your Sixth Sense, Belleruth Naparstek explains how intuition can be cultivated so as to gain better access to psi and thereby improve psychic capabilities.

Regardless of the language and labels used to describe what admittedly remains a rather mysterious subject, evidence suggests that human consciousness entails an inherent connection to a broader field of consciousness that can serve as a source of knowledge beyond what would be possible if consciousness were simply an epiphenomenon of the activity of our brains.  Given the holographic connections between consciousness and the unified field, it is entirely possible that our multisensory souls have inherent access to all the information stored in the quantum field.  This idea is supported by scientific findings, and it is consistent with a spiritual perspective that posits the existence of an omniscient higher power that has a role in creating the universe.  And it is this integration of science and spirituality that lays the foundation for the new cosmology, a new story about the nature of the universe, the process of evolution, and the purpose of life.

In this story, the universe is a conscious and creative entity, infinite and eternal in that it transcends space and time, a quantum realm of information/energy manifesting in material form, expressing its free will to become and to experience.  At the moment of the big bang, Light burst forth from its Source, and the Creator started to emerge as the Creation.  In this new cosmology, the universe is God, and all that exists is simply God made manifest; the unified field is Spirit, and all matter is therefore sacred.  The unfolding of the universe across trillions of years is the unfolding of Consciousness, and the evolution of life on Earth and anywhere else is thus the evolution of consciousness in material form.  Human beings are an integral part of this evolutionary process, playing a key role in the dynamics of the development of consciousness on this planet.

Given the conscious Source of these dynamics, it is reasonable to assume that they reflect some “intelligent design,” an idea that has been proffered in recent years as a middle ground between the more extreme creationist and evolutionist positions.  Intelligent design, in turn, implies an intent or purpose for the universe, and an important aspect of the new cosmology is the recognition that the evolution of consciousness is itself the goal.  In other words, we can now discern a trajectory to this evolutionary process, and based on a blend of scientific knowledge and spiritual wisdom, we have a better understanding of how human beings are participating in it.  Compatible with the idea that consciousness is causal, we know now that we are creating our own reality, and the quality of the reality we create is a function of the quality of our consciousness.  Consciousness-raising thus becomes an important objective, individually and collectively.

Duane Elgin’s framework suggests that, in the years since humans were hunter-gatherers, consciousness has evolved in the direction of a separate self, creating a capacity for reflective self-consciousness that has greatly expanded human capability, creativity, and capacity to express free will.  By recognizing that a human being is, in essence, simply conscious Light manifested in physical form as a complex bundle of quantum energy, we can understand that all the free will choices that humans make are in effect the primary means for Source to experience its own creativity.   Whereas the development of separative consciousness – i.e., the “fall of man” – was thus an intentional part of the plan, so is the next phase of developing unitive consciousness, which might be characterized as reconnecting with Spirit.  The idea that the purpose of human life is to transcend ego and come into communion with God has of course been a primary message in many of the world’s religions.  In the new cosmology, this is interpreted in terms of raising our consciousness to move past our sense of separation and instead experience ourselves as interconnected with life and all that is.

This is not simply an esoteric matter, and the point is not that we all should be seeking mystical experiences that affirm our oneness with the universe.  The distinction between separative and unitive consciousness can be translated into terms that are more directly relevant to our experience of life and to the free will choices we make while we’re alive.  Existentially, separative consciousness results in a conscious experience of being separate from Source and all that is, generating fear as the primary energy underlying our experiences and choices.  In contrast, unitive consciousness results in love as the primary energy, based on our connection to – our oneness with – a loving Creator.  Moving towards unitive consciousness, away from separative consciousness, thus entails making more conscious choices motivated by love rather than by fear.

Shennongjia_virgin_forestThis guideline certainly has many significant implications for the decisions we make as individuals, but the interesting question is what it suggests for the decisions we make collectively.  What would it mean for public policy and governance to be motivated by love instead of fear, reflecting interdependence instead of protecting independence, striving to serve the good of the whole instead of just particular parts, aiming to raise our collective consciousness instead of keeping us mired in a worldview and way of thinking that is leading to collapse?  How can global society choose a path of conscious evolution that will enable humanity to create a world of peace and prosperity?

There are, of course, many possible answers to these questions, some already apparent and no doubt many more yet to be clarified.  These Counterpoint columns have suggested some of the major changes needed to bring global society more into alignment with the higher level of consciousness we are starting to experience.

  • We should stop striving for economic growth with all its destructive ramifications, and focus on designing a sustainable society that lives in balance with Mother Earth.
  • We should disavow our faith in the false dichotomy of polarized left-right politics, and work to find integrative solutions that serve the needs and interests of the people rather than just those with power.
  • We should proactively de-bureaucratize government agencies, and redesign governance processes using new technologies that maximize inclusion, participation, and deliberation.
  • We should discontinue our use of a monetary and financial system designed to enrich the banksters by putting the world in debt, and replace it with a new system designed to insure a more equitable distribution of wealth.
  • We should acknowledge that wars are being waged under false pretenses, and renew our commitment to establishing a world without military conflict and weapons of mass destruction.
  • We should re-evaluate the entire criminal justice system, and emphasize the mitigation of factors leading to crime rather than the violent and abusive control of potential criminals.

The coming cultural transformation will certainly require or result in a host of other kinds of institutional changes, for example, in our education system, our industries and workplaces, our healthcare organizations, etc.  It is impossible to anticipate what all these changes will look like, and what kind of society will ultimately emerge as this transition unfolds.  But the opportunity before us is to implement changes that will consciously and intentionally help to create a more loving and compassionate world.

The dismal alternative is to stay stuck in the separative, fear-based mindset driving the dysfunctional dynamics that are pushing us towards a planetary bifurcation point and the risk of a catastrophic collapse.  Of course, the optimistic irony in this scenario is that the more challenging circumstances we will face as a result of continuing in the direction we are going should naturally stimulate greater awareness of our interdependence and greater desire to work together to address common concerns.  In other words, it could well be the impending “system failure” that pushes humanity to wake up to the truth that we really are interconnected, that we really are all in this together, and that better collaboration is needed to respond to these challenges.  True leaders in the future will be those who recognize the opportunity for conscious evolution and take responsibility for helping society develop towards a more peaceful and loving world.


The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect in any way those of the USC Bedrosian Center. 

Bedrosian Center