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Spiral Dynamics - a philosophical perspective

Author: Rod Hemsell

Last Updated: February 4, 2009

Spiral Dynamics in philosophical perspective Rod

Saturday seminar - Jan 31, 2009

This is our third session in the exploration of developmental psychology. Its a little bit different from what we did a year ago in our exploration of integral learning where we offered a platform for presentations from many different approaches to knowledge, and we didnt try to synthesize very much, although we did recognize a central paradigm the Vedic paradigm. Now we are exploring the developmental psychology paradigm, which I think is best represented by the three texts we are going to focus on: Sri Aurobindos Psychology of Social Development, also known as The Human Cycle, Jean Gebsers The Ever-Present Origin, and the Graves, Beck and Cowans Spiral Dynamics.

Now why do we do this? I would suggest that we are now aware of the emergence of a new paradigm. We know that around 1770 there emerged the rational in a very strong way in our civilization, and it has dominated, exfoliated, diversified; and it has been the expression of what is quite obviously a human potential. The theory of spiral dynamics is that in developmental psychology different human potentials emerge at different times in response to different stimuli, or life conditions. And they emerge in a recognizable pattern. Sri Aurobindo pointed out this pattern of emergence and gave it considerable importance. So we know, for example, that Adam Smith and Hegel and various minds of the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries told us about democracy and capital. This thinking has to do with the welfare of societies. Then Marx had to come along and observe that the emergence of that paradigm was hindered by the previous aristocratic, religious paradigm, and there had to be a radical process of deconstruction to liberate societies from that earlier paradigm. (The authoritarian, moralistic and religious paradigm is called the blue vMeme and the rationalistic and individualistic paradigm is called the orange vMeme by Beck and Cowan.)

So, we are not just exploring a theory, but we are engaged in a reality of social development. What the Mother has seen for Auroville, and what SA has theorized about is the emergence from that rational paradigm of an integral paradigm; a kind of spiritualized, intuitivized, subjective mind that is different from the rational subjective mind of the Eighteenth Century, in that it recognizes itself in everything. It is not analytical, it is a mind of identity. The word integral means for this paradigm recognizing the value of all of the stages. And one of the things that each of these writers on the subject points out, and Gebser most strongly, is that each emergence is absorbed in the next. It doesnt just go away. So, the real trick for the integral paradigm is to realize, really and substantially, that the powers and potentials and forms of expression of each of the levelsare ever-present. They are always there, and all are valuable. There is a way of looking at the developmental paradigm that is hierarchic. And the problem is that it tends toward comparative judgments, which is the problem of the rational. It falls always back into this pattern of comparative judgment. But the integral is supposed to be something different. That is something we have to explore because we are not really there. But it is there.

Therefore, I wanted to recall from the theory and philosophy of evolution Bergsons idea that the rational mind gathers experience and data, and theorizes, and comes to an understanding of evolution, for example, - variation and natural selection, diversification of species - and then thinks that it has understood evolution. But of course nobody understands evolution very well and there are innumerable unsolved questions in the theory of evolution. But only someone who pushes the envelope realizes that there is all of that which is not understood. It is easy to settle for categories, and that is the trick of the rational mind. So we can also take the theories of spiral dynamics as descriptive of final categories of understanding, like we do everything else: we build a frame of understanding and remain stuck there. Or we can try to integrate this way of understanding into our own experience and use those categories as tools only, for bringing ourselves into conscious contact with the realities that these ideas represent.

These ideas merely represent realities that are dynamic. In the philosophy of evolution we learn that nothing is permanent. There are no species per se. But there are from time to time patterns of repetition that go on long enough for there to be the impression of permanence. So we pointed out frequently in our philosophy of evolution course that 99.9 per cent of all species that have existed are now extinct. In fact the line from one to the other up the ladder of species is continuous and ever changing. With the emergence of mind in the human species there has begun another series of diversification of patterns and faculties based on the patterns and faculties of previous species. They are just variations on those earlier patterns but at the same time a huge leap beyond them into mental space.

The theory of evolution recognizes that the whole process of the formation of life from species to species, and socially between and among species, is a process of cognition. Each one at each moment is learning something, and the behaviour patterns are based on what is learned. These patterns of learning get translated into forms of behavior that enable species to persist from 50,000 to 50,000,000 years. It is generally understood now that cognition is going on at every level of life. Thats remarkable to realize, but you read it in Dawkins, in Lorenz, and in Capra, from the ultra Darwinian to the spiritual materialist. The idea that mind is an integral part of life and body is generally accepted nowadays. And that was not the case in 1920 when Sri Aurobindo said that it would eventually be the case.

I began two weeks ago trying to define the word meme. I think that this is one of those elusive concepts, sort of like gene. It is very difficult for the mind and science to figure out what the relationship is between the structural substratum of evolving consciousness, and the phenotype all of the forms and behaviors we can observe. One of the observations we come across is that its in the behaviour, in the phenotype, in society where the choices are made and Naturedoes her selection. What gets reproduced by the genes is what works out here. Exactly where the connection is between the genotype and the phenotype is a huge mystery. And from time to time there is a flipflop from one to the other. At present the phenotype is on top because so much has been learned about genes and they dont really tell us very much about what is going on.

I suggested in our first meeting that the integral consciousness might actually perceive the identity of form and structure. We might actually come to realize that there is no difference between matter and spirit: that there is not a duality between the genotype and phenotype. The analytical mind is still defining and describing particles but it is not capable of really seeing the relationships. When you see one structure, you leave out the other structure. This is the famous Heisenberg principle. Its possible that the integral consciousness is truly integral, and will be able to perceive the totality.

What Gebser says about integral consciousness is not the same as what Beck and Cowan say about integral consciousness, and neither is the same as what Sri Aurobindo says about integral consciousness. But it is a meme. This Human Cycle, and this Spiral Dynamics, and this Ever-Present Origin are memetic expressions of an emerging paradigm. I believe that you could take Beck and Cowans eight levels called value memes (vMemes) and call those paradigms. Just to create a little cognitive dissonance for a moment, which in education theory is always a useful thing to do, the spiral dynamics guys say these value memes manifest the core intelligences that form systems and impact human behavior for example the theory of evolution and capitalism and religion. Then they say, a value meme contains the basic package of thought, motives, and instructions that determine how we make decisions and prioritize our lives.

Heretofore we have called these simply value systems, but now we are calling them value memes. We do this I think, because different cultures at different times produce different forms of expression of values, but whether its medieval Christianity, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, it is the same emergent value system that produces those structures. They all look a little different but say the same thing. According to Beck and Cowan, A meme occupies the human mind much like a parasite moves into the body and reorders the neurological equipment to fit its way of thinking. What do we think about that? Does the meme work like a parasite, so that this emergent integral meme that we are learning about from SA and Gebser and C&B, is something that is occupying our minds which is going to determine our patterns of behavior? Or is it a core intelligence that is emerging in us that enables us to recognize that which is emerging in others under the same conditions of development? Is the meme like a gene, or is it like a phenotypic expression? Is it an external form like a virus that occupies the gene or is it the gene itself that is producing the value system? Is it self driven or is it environmental? I dont think these authors are clear about that. But I think thats OK because no one is quite clear about that. But it is good for us to recognize these philosophical issues in the emergent consciousness in our society and in our minds, and that we dont take anything as quite resolved. We keep that door of dissonance open so we dont start to assume too much. I believe thats healthy.

There is one other phrase here in Beck and Cowan, the only time that it occurs, that we might mention. The value memes do not emerge at inevitable stops on the train track through time nor are they irrevocably scripted within human biology. This statement also begs the question, if consciousness develops from stage to stage because there are psychological structures, like language structures and like sight: the faculty of sight is present in every living thing, and eyes have evolved in forty-nine totally independent lines of phyletic descent. Sight is ever present and it is a faculty of consciousness. It doesnt matter in which species or to what degree it perceives. Language is ever present in the human species because, as Chomsky tells us, language structures are inherent in the evolution of the human being, otherwise we couldnt learn language and it wouldnt be omnipresent. So if these social value memes emerge, and one cannot emerge without the other having emerged, then isnt there a kind of inevitability in that? And isnt it inevitable because there are inherent psychological structures that are part of the human package, and that package unpacks in response to circumstances. So isnt it like lactose genes that are triggered by milk; they dont start working unless they are in the presence of milk? So again we see this environmental openness; there are no boundaries in the inner and outer environment. Its fluid. Everything reflects everything else.

Then there is another curious statement in Beck and Cowan, Instead of that, rather the primary driving force that has sculpted the spiral is activated in the dynamic interaction between our internal states and our external worlds. Now, one thing that you dont find in psychology very often and is generally absent here, is metaphysics. But there is a little glimmer of a metaphysical assumption. And when you explore evolutionary theory you find that these metaphysical assumptions are usually there, from Spenser, Darwin, Huxley, on up to Mayr and Dawkins, but they are often deliberately suppressed. So in our course on evolution that we finished a few weeks ago, we derived a kind of metaphysical pattern from the evolution of species that it may be helpful to keep in mind as we pursue the value memes.

  1. Societies repeat patterns with variations, but the patterns arent permanent. They evolve. Societies are like species; behaviors and structures evolve unique variations of themes, which are being called here value memes. Each culture produces different expressions of those value memes, and that too is anther meaning of the term meme: the products of a particular value set or level of social awareness are also known as memes. For example, television programs about the scientific exploration of the universe are memes of our rational culture.
  2. Behaviors and structures evolve expressions of universal principles. Stages of psychological development are universal principles, but behind those or above them is another range of universal principles, emphasized by SA, such as harmony, beauty, power, freedom, that are embodied by these developmental paradigms and forms of expression.
  3. Nothing is permanent in the mind-life-body complex; change is constant. Only ideas seem to have permanence. Rational forms have permanence and they represent things in the world which do not have permanence. This is the evolutionary framework necessary, I think, to really understand the evolution of memes.
  4. Ultimately, only the eternal is permanent and it has no embodiment. Everything embodies it but itself is not embodied. It is known in the Hindu system as the Self.
  5. That, which is the fundamental principle of consciousness and force, is the motivator which develops structures to embody principles and forms of itself. SA would say that the vital being is infinite and eternal and it exfoliates in all the species an innumerable, practically infinite variety of itself, in the way living things possess nature, eat and produce energy and reproduce themselves the infinity of patterns of relationships, social and otherwise, are the vital expressions of that which is eternal.
  6. The process of embodiment is one of cognition at each level, so we know that cognition is going on in all of these vMeme structures and in all these social relationships all the time. People are constantly processing information and so is nature around. Through this information transfer between organisms and environment structures are built. So if we are going to build an emerging green meme structure or a higher coral meme ideal society structure based on the Supramental, that is going to have to be a process of developing cognition. It is not going to come about by magic.
  7. These social structures built in this way maintain, reproduce and improve themselves continually. The entities and the environment reflect each other. Nature explores as many variations of the possible patterns of manifestation as she can at each level for her expression. So SA predicts many Gnostic societies with infinite diversities of expression.

These axioms may be useful to us if we really want to understand integral psychological development. If at each level each value meme is ultimately valuable and necessary in the hierarchy as an expression of life, and ever present, how can we perceive that and not judge that one is better than the other and not get stuck at one level or another in our identification of ourselves and in the use of these memes how can we get beyond where we are or where someone else is if we dont see that they are all expressions of the same thing under different circumstances and at different times?

If we are going to look at Auroville in terms of developmental psychology, we have to be able to recognize and affirm widely divergent value systems and have the flexibility to move from one to the other. Ultimately we have to work within all the different value structures, as we should come to realize through this exploration of spiral dynamics.